What issues remain open in Chicago’s teachers contract talks? An internal union document offers clues

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s summary of contract talks with the Chicago Teachers Union after the first day of the teachers strike suggested that negotiators have a lot of ground yet to cover.

“We made some progress on two issues,” Lightfoot said on the public TV station WTTW late Thursday. But she said it had been weeks since the two sides had discussed some of the topics that had brought them to an impasse.

“There’s a lot of other open issues,” Lightfoot said.

What’s still on the table? A bargaining document made available on an online portal for rank-and-file union members on Tuesday offers a comprehensive outline of the union’s demands, only some of which have drawn significant attention beyond the closed doors of contract negotiations. Labeled “Internal document for CTU members only,” it offers a snapshot of the many and varied demands that have frustrated Lightfoot, and where the two sides stand in the union’s estimation.

The document identifies 14 proposals as “priority issues.” (Another 21 are explained but not identified as priorities, including a new sanctuary schools policy to protect immigrant students that both sides have hailed as an accomplishment.) Here they are, broken down by how much progress the union says has been made.

Only one priority issue earns an unqualified “Movement” from the union.

Charter school growth: Both sides say an agreement has been reached on a continued cap on charter school growth — something that they haven’t discussed much publicly. The district’s Oct. 11 offer says “there will be a net zero increase” in the number of charter schools, and the total number of charter school students by the end of the 2023-24 school year can only exceed the current capacity of these schools by 1%. The word “capacity” here is important — some charter schools aren’t full yet, so overall enrollment can still grow. (This language mirrors what’s in the most recent union contract.)

On many priority issues where the union describes movement, there’s a big “but.”

Support staffing: The teachers union has been asking for more social workers, special education case managers, nurses, counselors, and librarians — as well as language in the contract to guarantee that the new positions are filled and preserved.

The city has said it endorses the idea of having more support staff, especially in higher-need schools, but has been hesitant to make any guarantees.

The union document suggests that the union is satisfied with a lot of what’s in the city’s Oct. 11 offer, which included a promise to phase out contract nurses; to spend $2 million on tuition assistance for aspiring nurses; and to spend $400,000 a year on support staff recruitment.

But two central demands hadn’t yet been met, the document emphasizes: for the city to commit, in writing, to its promise to hire 200 more social workers and 250 more nurses over five years, and for positions like these to be funded centrally, instead of at the school level. The staffing demand was a major talking point on the picket line Thursday, and in the document, the key phrase is in all-caps: The union wants the promise “IN WRITING IN THE CONTRACT.”

Class sizes: The union wants smaller class sizes and ways to enforce those limits, especially in pre-kindergarten. According to the internal union document and the district’s Oct. 11 offer, the district has offered to spend $1 million to reduce class sizes in grades 4-12, as well as spend an unspecified amount to provide more teachers’ assistants.

The internal union document suggests that the city has promised to take other steps to reduce class sizes. And at a Thursday bargaining update, union officials said the district had offered to give $9 million to a committee that could enforce and fund measures to lower class sizes. But the union still wants lower class size caps — and a clearer way to enforce them.

Union chief Jesse Sharkey said Thursday that the city had presented a new, but similar class size offer. In an appearance on WTTW, he said the city’s proposal “tries to provide relief to oversized classes, but it doesn’t get there in terms of adequacy… Probably 70% or 80% of the oversized classes would not see relief.”

Pay for paraprofessionals: Earlier this week, the union was calling for a 21% increase in base pay for paraprofessionals who work in the lowest grades, as well as larger raises when they accrue educational experience and spend more years on the job. As of Tuesday, the document said, the city had yet to respond to the request.

According to the union, the district offered to increase the base pay of paraprofessionals by 1.5% in the first year of the contract for the lowest grades, and that it would eventually give raises to these workers when they obtain associate or bachelor’s degrees. The district also agreed to raises for years of experience.

The union said the district’s offer to increase pay for experience and time on the job was “important” but the 1.5% base pay raise was “not enough for our lowest paid members.”

Teacher prep time: The city has dropped a proposal to let principals direct more of teachers’ preparation time. The union document says this is progress but notes that it had originally sought more planning time for teachers. “We’re only back to the current contract status quo,” it reads. “CPS seems to have strategically rolled back of their original proposal to make us accept not getting additional prep time.”

Special education: The union wants new policies to help special education teachers, particularly when it comes to managing the burdensome task of writing legally required Individualized Education Programs for students with special needs. The district has proposed awarding stipends to special education teachers who take on extra work. The union document reports progress but says the union “is still fighting” for further protections.

How teachers are evaluated: The union says it wants tenured teachers who receive one of the two highest ratings — “proficient” or “excellent” — to be able to skip a rating cycle. The union said this “would provide workload and stress relief for educators and principals.”

The union also wants to eliminate the use of growth on student test scores (what’s known as a “value-added” score) for elementary school teachers. Right now, student test scores make up 20% of the rating for educators in third to eighth grades who teach core subjects like English, reading, and math. The union document says the city had yet to respond to these two demands.

And the union said talks were at a total standstill on six priority issues.

School closures: The union says it wants another moratorium on school closures that would last the life of the contract. The district previously imposed a five-year ban on closures, starting in 2013, after the city had closed 49 schools. That moratorium expired last year, after which the district closed several high schools in Englewood on the city’s South Side to make way for a new high school.

How schools are rated: The union also wants test scores not to factor into school ratings, too. Its bargaining overview says the city has said only that it would study the current evaluation system and “might be willing to explore changes.”

Contract length: The union wants a three-year deal, while the district is pushing for a five-year agreement. The internal union document notes that if the union agrees to a longer deal, it will be “locked into terms until after the mayor is up for reelection.”

Raises for veteran teachers: The district has offered a 3% cost-of-living increase to teachers for three years, and a 3.5% cost-of-living increase for the last two years of a five-year contract. The union wants a 5% cost-of-living increase for each year of a three-year deal, plus higher raises for veteran teacher when they accrue more years of experience.

Student-based budgeting: The union says it wants the district to fund special education positions centrally — instead of at the school-level — and to protect veteran teachers from losing their jobs because they make more money, which can make it harder for schools with lower enrollment and smaller budgets to afford them. It’s unclear how central of an issue this has been in bargaining talks, and the union said it had not received a proposal from the city. But Lightfoot has promised to reconsider how schools are funded.

Time-off policies: The union document reveals a tentative agreement on allowing union members to spread bereavement leave across non-consecutive days. But the union says the city hasn’t responded to most of its other requests, including to increase the number of paid days off teachers can take.

On all of these issues, the union document offers a clear and concise status update: “No movement.”

Yana Kunichoff contributed reporting.