Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, center, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, March 23, after the union voted to approve a one-day walkout on April 1. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

 

CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago teachers are expected to walk off the job Friday, a one-day strike that union leaders describe as an effort to pressure state lawmakers to address the dire financial outlook of the city’s public schools and colleges.

The move by the Chicago Teachers Union comes amid stalled contract negotiations and means that the city’s nearly 400,000 students will miss class, throwing their families’ daily routines into disarray. The strike also is likely to snarl traffic for Chicago commuters thanks to a downtown rally that is expected to draw thousands of teachers and their allies, including fast-food workers, university students and professors and community groups.

Karen Lewis, president of the 27,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, said she hopes the disruption puts pressure on Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), whose standoff with the Democratic legislature has left the state without a budget for nine months, squeezing public schools and universities and low-income students who depend on state-funded scholarships.

“The fact is that we need to do something major,” Lewis said in an interview Thursday. “When people are inconvenienced, they have to have some place to focus, and they need to focus on him.”

The union also is calling for lawmakers to reform the state’s education funding formula. Illinois has the nation’s most unfair school funding formula, according to an analysis by the national advocacy group Education Trust, which found that the highest-poverty schools get roughly 20 percent fewer state and local dollars per pupil than schools in more affluent communities.

Chicago’s school district, the nation’s third largest, is undeniably broke. It faces a $1.1 billion structural deficit, largely due to growing pension payments. This year it has a $480 billion budget gap that Chicago officials hoped to plug with help from state lawmakers; absent that assistance, they have sought to save money with employee layoffs, borrowing and furlough days.

The system’s financial troubles have created an opening for Rauner, who has threatened to bankrupt and take over the city’s schools. His spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.

Chicago Public Schools officials agree that the system’s fiscal crisis can be resolved only with the help of lawmakers in Springfield, the state capital. And like union leaders, they too have been frequent and ardent critics of Rauner.

But they have called the union’s walkout illegal, a breach of labor rules that they say prohibit teachers from striking any earlier than mid-May.

“When adults play politics, students suffer, whether it’s an illegal strike that eliminates classroom time or a discriminatory state funding formula,” school system spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday. “Instead of forcing our students to miss out on a day of learning, we need to work together to fix a broken state education funding system that penalizes poor and minority children in Chicago and around the state.”

The school system has set up more than 250 sites — including schools, libraries and parks facilities — where parents can drop off students for care during the day Friday. The sites, staffed by principals and central office employees, will offer free breakfast and lunch as well as arts and crafts, physical education and online learning.

The union says its strike is legal because the district engaged in an unfair labor practice when it decided not to award salary increases based on education and experience. (The union complained to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which has declined to force the school system to change course, but the case is ongoing.)

Some teachers have criticized the union’s decision to strike, saying that the action comes at too great an expense to children. The union’s governing body was hardly unanimous on the wisdom of striking; it voted 486-124 last week in favor.

“If the union wants to get a point across, why not plan this walkout on a day when students are not in attendance?” teacher Michael DeRoss wrote this week in a letter to the Chicago Tribune. “The union officials can’t talk about how they want the schools that our children deserve and then deprive our students a day of education without losing credibility.”

Lewis, the CTU president, dismissed the dissent as par for the course for any major action. She also dismissed the notion that the strike has anything to do with the union’s ongoing and often bitter contract negotiations.

Teachers have been working without a contract since their previous contract expired on June 30, 2015. The two sides reached a tentative agreement in January, and Lewis publicly praised it as a good deal. But when she took it to her 40-person leadership team, they rejected it unanimously.

The two sides have continued to negotiate regularly even as the union has laid the groundwork for Friday’s strike.

Teachers are expected to picket at their schools starting at 6:30 a.m. Friday. There also will be rallies at Chicago State University, a historically black college so squeezed by the budget standoff that every faculty member has received a layoff notice, and at Northeastern Illinois University, where there will be a “funeral march regarding the death of higher education,” according to the union.

Randi Weingarten, president of the Chicago union’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers, is planning to rally Friday at Northeastern Illinois and elsewhere. She said she was inspired by the city’s teachers and called their one-day strike “an act of civil disobedience” to resist the governor’s “reckless indifference.”

“This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids,” Weingarten said. “If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”

Brown reported from Washington.