Karen Lewis to CPS teachers: Get ready for long strike

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Karen Lewis predicts a teachers’ strike could close Chicago's public schools before April, and the fiery president of the Chicago Teachers Union says she now has a new strategy to combat potential layoffs.

Union leaders want to impose new taxes on banks and other financial institutions to close a half-billion dollar budget gap at Chicago's Public Schools. That shortfall is one reason CPS is at the tipping point and threatening to lay off thousands of teachers this winter.

A strike that would kick 300,000 CPS students out of school would anger parents and pressure Chicago Democrats to cut a deal in the State Capitol. Gov. Bruce Rauner is offering financial help, but only if he can also reduce the power of government employee unions, including teachers.

Rauner said again Monday that Chicago Democrats will eventually give in to his demands.

“The reason I think that in the next 60-90 days it'll happen is because Chicago needs the help. They're running out of money,” Rauner said.

No government agency in Chicago needs more help than the public schools. Little noticed is how the State of Illinois has made things worse by cutting nearly $200 million a year from per pupil payments to CPS. 

“The state is spending billions more on education for the suburbs and Downstate, while cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Chicago kids. That is a fundamental unfairness,” said CPS Superintendent Forrest Claypool.

Claypool has pleaded with the teachers union to join him in lobbying the State Capitol. The teachers reject bargaining with the Republican governor, demanding instead that the City of Chicago impose its own new taxes on "the rich."

Declaring that teachers will take a "practice strike vote" this week, union president Lewis said a walkout could come before April. A school strike always puts intense political pressure on Chicago Democrats, because their voters are directly affected. Very few of Gov. Rauner's supporters have children in CPS. But Lewis said striking teachers would put heat on him, too.

“They will be in the banks. That's where they will be,” Lewis said. “If you think it's about putting pressure on Chicago legislators, no, this is about the governor putting pressure on his friends.”

For his part, Rauner declined to respond to Lewis last week calling him a "sociopath" who likes to hurt people.

“In politics, rhetoric sometimes gets overheated and impolite. All I can do is ignore it,” Rauner said.

We’ll see how much heat the governor feels, if a school strike does come.

But there is a possible irony, that it would pressure desperate Chicago Democrats to trade for financial help by giving the Republican governor some of what he wants.