Chicago braces for first teacher strike in a generation

CHICAGO Fri Sep 7, 2012 8:02pm EDT

Chicago Mayor and former Obama administration official Rahm Emanuel addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Chicago Mayor and former Obama administration official Rahm Emanuel addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - A bitter dispute between unionized public school teachers and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has residents of the third-largest U.S. city bracing for a possible teachers' strike on Monday in a showdown over education reform that has national implications.

Nearly 30,000 public school teachers and support staff represented by the Chicago Teachers Union have vowed to walk off the job starting at 12:01 a.m. (0401 GMT) on Monday if an impasse in contract talks is not broken. It would be the first teachers' strike in Chicago in 25 years.

Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama and a speaker at this week's Democratic National Convention, has made reform of Chicago's troubled public schools a top priority. Emanuel cut short his trip to the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, to deal with the teacher crisis.

Earlier this year, he pushed through a longer school day, but the union is opposed to other proposed reforms, including tougher teacher evaluations tied to student test scores and giving principals wide latitude in hiring.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said negotiators made little progress on Friday and talks would resume at midday on Saturday.

"We were told that we were going to get a proposal that would answer some of our biggest issues, and it did not," Lewis told reporters after talks ended for the day.

Chicago School Board President David Vitale issued a one-sentence statement saying negotiators had a "good meeting" on Friday. Neither side gave details of the remaining differences.

The union has said it wants more than the 8 percent pay raise over four years that Chicago offered. The school district says it cannot afford concessions as it is running a large budget deficit and major credit rating agencies have downgraded its debt rating.

The threatened walkout, which would be one of the largest labor actions nationwide in recent years, comes at an awkward time for Emanuel's former boss, Obama, who spent much of his adult life in Chicago and owns a house in the city.

Obama and his fellow Democrats facing voters on November 6 are counting on unions such as teachers to get out the vote across the country in a close election.

Chicago's public school system, the third largest in the country behind those of New York and Los Angeles, has more than 400,000 students enrolled.

Both sides in Chicago agree the city's public schools need fixing. The city's fourth-grade and eighth-grade students lag national averages in a key test of reading ability, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Until Emanuel forced through a longer school day, which began last week, Chicago elementary and middle-school students received instruction for fewer hours a year than any of 30 major cities studied by the National Center on Time and Learning, an education reform group.

TOUGH NEGOTIATOR OR BULLY?

Emanuel, a tough negotiator called a bully by the teachers' union, wants to close schools, expand non-union charter schools, and let corporations and philanthropies run some schools. He also wants principals to be able to hire whom they want, and wants to use standardized test results to evaluate teachers.

The union wants to shrink class sizes and increase education funding. It is suspicious of efforts to erode job protections such as tenure, teacher autonomy and seniority. It believes charter schools - which are taxpayer-funded but not subject to all public school regulations - undermine public education.

"What Emanuel represents is a new breed of urban mayors, pushing for a whole system of school improvements ... responding to public demand," said Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University.

The city of Chicago has allocated $25 million for a strike contingency fund. It would be used to provide breakfast and lunch to students in the district - 84 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals at school - and to pay for four hours of supervision at some schools, other public facilities and churches.

The plan has prompted concern from some parents and the union about the well-being of the children and how low-income youths would be supervised in neighborhoods that have seen a sharp rise in gang-related murders in recent months.

"It (the contingency plan) sounds like a train wreck," the union statement said, adding that those supervising children had received little training.

(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Karen Pierog; Editing by Greg McCune, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

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