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Chicago teachers haven't had a contract since July. Why strike now?

Teachers in Chicago are looking for a new contract and better school funding. They have organized a strike to draw attention to the problem.

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    A Chicago Teachers Union staffer balances a stack of signs with her leg on Wednesday as signs and flyers were passed out to teachers at CTU headquarters in Chicago in preparation for a one-day strike on Friday. The teachers union and other community groups and unions are calling for more state funding for schools and social services.
    Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/AP
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Chicago's teachers want school reform, and they are letting it be known by holding a massive walkout.

Friday’s walkout will close school for 4,000 students in the nation’s third-largest school district. At the heart of the issue is a new labor contract, which has been under negotiation since a larger union bargaining team rejected the initial proposal from The Chicago Teachers Union. Since June 30, 2015, nearly 27,000 members of the teachers union have been working without a contract.

The issue reached a new level of urgency for many teachers when the district announced earlier this month that teachers would be required to take three days furlough, in addition to already-halted salary increases. Illinois and its public school systems currently face significant financial hardship. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit, and billions more in pension debt. Illinois has gone almost a year without a state budget.  

The teachers union and its allies say that that the only way to call attention to the problem, and fix it, is to organize a strike. They will be picketing outside Chicago schools all morning Friday, culminating in a march downtown during rush hour. CPS will be operating "contingency sites" for students affected by the strike to make sure that they have a place to be during what would otherwise be school hours.

"[The walkout] is the most urgent way for us to say it's got to be fixed," union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told The Associated Press Thursday.

The school district has questioned the legality of the strike, saying that it is taking place before the union and the district have exhausted all their options for the contract negotiation. Under Illinois law, teachers are not allowed to strike during what’s known as the "fact-finding" phase of the contract negotiation process.

The union has countered, arguing that "the CEO doesn’t know how the courts will rule should he seek to use money the district doesn’t have on unnecessary legal fees." They may strike again if they don’t reach an agreement with CPS.

This isn't the first time CPS has been in this position, as the Monitor's Kevin Truong wrote last June when talks broke down:

The situation may seem like déjà vu for some in the Chicago education community, who saw similar issues plague contract negotiations in 2012, leading to a week-long walkout that kept more than 300,000 students out of school.

The key players are much the same. On one side is Rahm Emanuel, the acerbic mayor of the Windy City, who is now in his second term. On the other is Ms. Lewis, who led the strike three years ago, and is an established member of the city’s labor community.

Back then, both sides made concessions to end the strike. Teachers agreed to a more rigorous system to evaluate teachers, including the ability of principals to hire or fire teachers based on performance. In return, Emmanuel gave the union raises of 2 to 3 percent over the four years of the contract. He also extended the school day and school year for students....

For a way out of this impasse, Chicago could well look the Los Angeles Unified School District, the No. 2 largest school district in the nation, which resolved its own fiscal crisis by engaging lawmakers, teachers, and ultimately taxpayers in a bold move to fund education for the long term. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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