How Class Size Demands Could Trigger A Chicago Teachers Strike

CTU class size
Teachers and students gather outside Simeon Career Academy High School on Oct. 9 to call for reducing class size as part of a new Chicago Teachers Union contract. Teachers are set to strike Oct. 17 If no deal is reached before then. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
CTU class size
Teachers and students gather outside Simeon Career Academy High School on Oct. 9 to call for reducing class size as part of a new Chicago Teachers Union contract. Teachers are set to strike Oct. 17 If no deal is reached before then. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

How Class Size Demands Could Trigger A Chicago Teachers Strike

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As a strike looms, the Chicago Teachers Union held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to call attention to one of its biggest issues: a demand for lower class sizes.

The press conference was held at Simeon High School on the South Side, where students said they often feel lost and teachers said they feel overwhelmed with large classes.

The teachers union has said that it won’t make a deal with the school district unless they get some movement on class sizes. Currently, Chicago Public Schools has class size limits but they’re advisory only. The CTU wants to lower the limits and a way to be able to enforce them.

The school district has made some concessions around class sizes, but the union says it has yet to respond to the overarching demand of making class sizes enforceable.

If no deal is reached on class size caps and other issues, teachers intend to strike on Oct. 17.

Below are six key question on class size and the Chicago Teachers Union contract:

What are current class size limits in Chicago Public Schools?

Current class size guidelines in the CTU contract call for kindergarten and primary classes of 28 students or less. Fourth through eighth grades are supposed to be 31 or less. Most high school classes are to be 28 or less.

WBEZ analyzed class size data from Feb. 2019 and found 17% of kindergarten and primary grades had more than 28 students, but most of those were less than 32 students. Meanwhile, only about 7% of intermediate and upper grade classes had 32 or more students.

Majority white elementary schools, such as Edison Park and Ebinger, were the most likely to have kindergarten and primary grade classes over the guidelines. But majority Latino schools, including Hurley in West Lawn and Shields Middle in Brighton Park, had the most intermediate and upper grade classes that had 32 or more students.

Parent Carmen Salamanca said her fifth grader at Shields Middle complains about large classes. Her daughter struggles in math and she thinks she would be doing better with fewer classmates.

Salamanca other parents at the school back the teachers union’s on their class size demands.

“The teachers want to give them more personal attention,” she said. “It is something that they want so they can be better teachers. It is not just for themselves, It is for my child.”

Every year, there are some extreme situations. Last year, for example, three kindergarten classes and one third grade class had more than 40 students in February.

About a quarter of the core high school classes — English, math, science, social studies and world language — have more than 28 students. In high schools, overcrowded classrooms occur throughout the city, from selective enrollment high schools to neighborhood schools.

At Simeon, where Wednesday’s press conference was held, a third of the core classes last year had more than 28 students.

There are no repercussions for the school district if class sizes are over the limits because there only guidelines, not firm caps. Teachers can complain to a committee comprised of union and school district representatives and they can recommend fixes to the school district, such as changing class schedules or splitting classes into two.

In the last CTU contract, the school district agreed to provide teaching assistants to kindergarten, first and second grade classes with 32 or more students.

What does CTU want?

The teachers union wants to lower class size maximums to 20 in kindergarten, 24 in primary grades and 28 in intermediate and upper grades.

It wants teacher assistants assigned to kindergarten to third grade classes that have more than 24 students. For fourth through eighth grade classes over the limits, the union wants the school district to be required to remedy the situation. Remedies include hiring a teacher assistant, hiring a new teacher to split a class, or paying the teacher $5 extra per student over the limit per day.

Union leadership stresses this is a broad proposal that is open for negotiation, but say they have received nothing from the school district that would lead to enforceable class size limits.

What is the school district offering?

Chicago Public Schools is offering to provide teacher assistants in third grade classes that have 32 or more students. For teacher assistants in all the primary grades that have 32 or more students, they say they will have 200 teacher assistants and this will cost them $10 million.

Why is the school district resisting CTU’s class size demands?

It would be expensive to lower class size, especially to the level CTU is demanding. Significantly reducing class size requires hiring extra teachers, which can add up quickly.

Furthermore, the school district wants to retain principal discretion.

CPS doles out money to individual schools based on the number of students enrolled. This is called student-based budgeting. After getting their budgets, principals have a lot of say over how to spend it. Principals may decide to have a class with one or two students over the guidelines so they don’t have to spend money for an additional teacher or teacher assistant.

If the contract dictated firm class sizes limits, principals would have less autonomy. Also, principals may have a reason for allowing a large class size, such as a belief that a certain teacher can handle the load or the students are high performing and therefore don’t need the extra attention.

Also, school district officials say class sizes are sometimes large for reasons outside of their control. Some schools don’t have an additional classroom available to split a class into two. Other schools have trouble filling teacher vacancies, leaving a principal to either have an extra large class or one with no teacher at all.

Can CTU strike over class size?

Technically, no.

The 1995 state law that established mayoral control over Chicago Public Schools specifically makes striking over class size and a host of other issues illegal. The CTU only is allowed to strike over wages and benefits.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot could ask the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board for an injunction on the grounds that state law “expressly prohibits” teachers from striking over non-economic issues. In 2012, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel took this step, but a deal was made before a judge heard the motion.

Also, Chicago Public Schools is not required to bargain with the CTU over class size but it can choose to bargain on that topic. But because class size guidelines are already in the teachers contract, and the CTU is making new demands, they are under discussion.

The CTU is keeping the option to strike on the table because it has not come to an agreement with the school district over salary and benefits. Given the legal limits around what the CTU can strike over, the union likely will not offer Lightfoot a counterproposal on compensation until it gets something on class size and other issues.

How do other Illinois teacher contracts address class size?

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said no other teachers union in the state is prohibited from striking over class size.

He said some teachers contracts don’t address class size, while others have stringent class size caps. Some require school districts to hire a teacher assistant when they are over the limit, while others require teachers be paid a stipend daily for each student over the limit until the issue is resolved.

“Those are enforceable, they are in the contract,” Montgomery said. “The school district doesn’t violate it because they know they can’t win and they also know it is not good for kids. It comes to be a community compact.”

Montgomery also points out that, unlike Chicago, all other Illinois school districts have elected school boards. If they had really large classes, he said the school board would hear from parents and they would respond.

“And if you have 45 kids in your classroom, believe you me, at the next school board you are going to have parents with pitchforks and torches, saying, `We want smaller class sizes. Open another class section,’” he said.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.