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Two Big-City Teacher Strikes Loom on the Horizon

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Two of the nation's top five largest school districts could see a teacher strike this fall.

In Clark County, the district that encompasses Las Vegas, teachers are set to strike on Sept. 10 if the union is unable to come to an agreement with administrators. And in Chicago, an ongoing contract dispute could lead to a teacher strike by late September if a deal is not reached. 

There has been a wave of both big-city and statewide teacher strikes for the last 18 months. Last school year, for example, teachers in Denver and Los Angeles went on strike. And in spring 2018, there were statewide walkouts in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. The teacher activism was initially centered around a call for higher pay and more school funding, but as time went on, teachers began to expand their talking points to include calls for lower class sizes, charter school moratoriums, and other socially minded initiatives. 

In the nation's fifth-largest district of Clark County, the contract impasse revolves around salary raises. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the two sides agree on a 3 percent across-the-board raise, a 2 percent step increase, and a 4 percent increase in the district's contribution to employee health care. 

But the union is also asking for the district to pay for teachers who completed a certain number of professional development hours to move to a higher column in the salary schedule—union leaders say about 2,000 teachers have done the training without receiving a pay raise. The district has also frozen step increases for the past two years, and while they are paying for step increases going forward, the union wants them to adjust teachers' pay for the experience they gained during the freeze. And finally, the union wants the district to address an increase in the employee contribution to the retirement system, which had reduced teachers' pay checks by just over half a percent.

"We are extremely disappointed in Superintendent [Jesus] Jara," the Clark County Education Association said in a statement. "He has turned his backs on educators who advocated relentlessly during the legislative session for more funds for our schools. He has turned his back on over 18,800 educators who day in and day out have committed time and resources to improve their practice while working under extreme conditions of large class sizes with less resources to educate over 320,000 students."

Meanwhile, the district has said in a statement that its proposal offered the "most significant increase in compensation and benefits" in more than a decade. 

The union has given the district a deadline of August 23 to come up with a new offer. 

Far Apart in Chicago

In Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district, contract negotiations are "far behind," Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Teachers go back to school next week, but the two sides are still far apart on several issues, including the length of the contract itself. The union wants a three-year contract, while the district wants a five-year contract.

The union is asking for 5 percent annual raises, no increase in health care costs, a nurse in every school, the hiring of additional social workers and counselors, lower class sizes, and teacher-directed preparation time. The district is offering 2.5 percent salary increases for the first three years and 3 percent raises for the last two years, and wants to increase health care costs by 0.5 percent in the last three years of the contract. The district also has not made any promises for additional support staff or lower class sizes, and wants principals to direct teacher prep periods. (WBEZ Chicago has a helpful breakdown of where the two sides stand.) 

An independent fact-finding report was submitted to the union and the school board earlier this month. The recommendations favored the district's proposal on salary increases and health care costs, and didn't weigh in on class sizes and additional school counselors and nurses, among other issues. 

"I think what it shows is that the city has stepped up and made real commitments to teachers and support staff to make sure we are enhancing the educational experience for our young people," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters, according to news site WTTW.

Sharkey, meanwhile, said in a statement that the report "does nothing but codify inequitable and unjust school policy."

The two sides are still in negotiations, and there are several additional steps in the process before the union can officially call a strike, including conducting a member strike authorization vote. The earliest possible strike date is Sept. 25. 

Chicago teachers went on a one-day walkout in 2016, and a seven-day strike in 2012. Last year, hundreds of Chicago teachers in a 15-school charter network staged the nation's first-ever strike by charter school teachers

Image: Highland Arts Elementary School kindergarten teacher Melissa Perez participates in a 2018 walk-in in Mesa, Ariz. —Matt York/AP-File

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