CHICAGO -- Chicago teachers beginning a massive strike Thursday have rejected offers that would increase their pay, hoping that will keep pressure on the district to commit to lower class sizes and more support staff in schools.
Illinois law allows the district and the union to negotiate on those issues, but educators can only strike over a few points including pay and benefits. That has kept teachers' earnings at the center of contract talks in the country's third-largest school district.
More than 300,000 students and their families will be affected by a teacher walkout, and both the district and the union have angled to win public support for their position during months of negotiations that led to Chicago's first major teachers' strike since 2012.
The district and Mayor Lori Lightfoot argue that the city's teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and will continue to be with an offered 16% cost-of-living raise spread over the next five years.
Lightfoot says that offer also protects the district's fragile finances, facing an underfunded pension fund and declining enrollment.
"Teachers and staff are invaluable to our schools, and our offers recognize that," officials said in a blog post describing their pay proposal this month. "Although we wish we could offer more to our teachers and support staff for their hard work and dedication, we believe our offers are fair deals that meet the needs of teachers, paraprofessionals and students, and keep the district on a path of success."
Union officials, though, said the city's claims about the salary offer are misleading. Their own analysis suggests the average teacher will make about $15,000 less than the city says by the end of the proposed five-year deal.
The union has proposed a 5% annual raise during the next three years and officials argue that teachers' most recent contract, which expired this summer, didn't keep pace with inflation in the city. They also worry the costs of living in Chicago, which teachers are required to do, will keep rising and chip away at members' economic status.
The union's central argument, though, is that higher pay won't address teachers' top concerns, particularly for communities affected by gun violence on the city's south and west sides.
"The mayor is trying to buy us off," union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said Friday after union leaders flatly rejected one of the city's proposals.
"When you choose to become a teacher, a teacher's assistant, a clinician in schools, you do not do it because you want to become a wealthy individual. You do it because you want to provide opportunity for the students in your school community."
Heated bargaining talks seemed to moderate over the weekend as the teachers' union offered to phase in stricter limits on class sizes and support staffing, targeting the cities' neediest schools first. But by Wednesday, union members voted to move forward with a strike.
Teachers began picketing in front of schools Thursday morning, calling for the district and city to give in to their demands.
Comparing teachers' pay across districts can be difficult because of other contract terms that affect take-home pay, including contributions toward health care and retirement funds.
But like other districts, Chicago uses a system of "steps and lanes" to determine automatic pay increases based on teachers' classroom experience and additional education.
One national analysis of those systems found a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree would make nearly $50,000 after adjustments for cost of living in the Chicago district. That puts the district among the top 25 starting salaries for new teachers in the country's largest school districts, the National Council on Teacher Quality found.
Chicago's starting salary tops districts in other large cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and New York.
The organization's comparison also found that a Chicago teacher with a master's degree and 10 years' experience making about $78,400 adjusted for cost of living ranked 13th among the same group of large school districts.
A 2014 analysis by the council found Chicago schools' salaries were higher throughout a teachers' career than the median for all Illinois school districts.
More recent state data suggests that Chicago's base salaries for beginning teachers are topped by just a few wealthy suburban districts. But for teachers with more experience and upper-level degrees, salaries are much more competitive.
A beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree, for instance, makes a higher salary in 12 other districts while a beginner with a master's degree could make more in six districts, according to data collected by the Illinois State Board of Education for the 2018 school year.
More than 100 districts, though, reported a highest possible salary beyond the $108,000 Chicago offers to teachers with more than 25 years' experience and doctorate-level education.
Researchers also noted that cost of living in Chicago, which is required for the district's teachers, is a significant factor for educators.
Linda Perales, a special education teacher for kindergarten through 4th grade students at an elementary school on the city's west side, said she rents an apartment with another woman about 20 minutes from work. Perales, 32, said she remains on a tight budget while making payments of about $500 per month toward college and graduate school loans.
But Perales said she's committed to teaching in the district she attended. She sees the union's demands for stricter limits on class size and additional support staff including social workers, nurses and librarians as far more important than pay.
"If we have working conditions that require us to do the job of 10 people, no amount of money can compensate for the disservice that is to students," she said.
Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.