Agreement near in Chicago teachers strike, no school Friday

CHICAGO Thu Sep 13, 2012 7:54pm EDT

1 of 5. Chicago Teachers Union members picket outside of the Chicago Teachers Acadamy in Chicago on the fourth day of their strike, September 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/John Gress

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Teachers Union and the nation's third-largest school district were close to a deal on Thursday to end a four-day strike over education reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but school will not be open on Friday.

"We are optimistic, but we are still hammering things out. Schools will not open Friday," union president Karen Lewis said.

Lewis, a former high school chemistry teacher, said the union House of Delegates will meet at 2 p.m. local time Friday (3 p.m. EDT) to provide an update on the talks. Lewis has said she would need the approval of that body to seal a deal.

The strike by 29,000 public school teachers and support staff, affecting 350,000 kindergarten, elementary and high school students, is the biggest private or public labor dispute in the United States in a year.

Lewis, who called Emanuel a "bully" and "liar" before leading teachers on their first strike in 25 years, struck a conciliatory tone after late-night talks on Wednesday.

As for schools reopening on Monday, Lewis said: "I'm praying, praying, praying... I'm hoping for Monday."

Lewis said there was progress on the two most vexing issues - using student test scores to evaluate teachers and giving more authority to local principals to hire teachers.

The union is concerned that more than a quarter of its membership could be fired because the teachers work in poor neighborhoods where students perform badly on standardized tests, which Emanuel wants to use to evaluate teachers.

COMPROMISE OFFER

Emanuel's negotiators released a copy of their latest compromise offer on teacher evaluations. The mayor would phase in the new teacher evaluation system over five years and give no more than 20 percent weight to standardized tests. Classroom observations and a survey of students would also be used.

Other unresolved issues include the role of principals in hiring teachers and what happens to teachers when a school closes and teachers face layoffs.

The union fears Emanuel plans to close scores of schools, putting unionized teachers out of work. In recent years, about 100 public schools have been closed, with officials usually citing low enrollment. At the same time, a similar number of publicly funded, non-union charter schools have opened.

About 52,000 students enrolled at those schools have not been affected by the strike this week.

Thousands of teachers and supporters held another rally in downtown Chicago on Thursday to underscore their strike resolve.

Support for the union from Chicago parents appeared to be holding up. A new poll for Capital Fax by We Ask America found 66 percent of parents with children in Chicago Public Schools supported the strike. The majority of people who opposed the strike were either white voters or had children in private schools, Capital Fax said. Some 85 percent of students in Chicago Public Schools are either African-American or Hispanic. The poll surveyed 1,344 voting Chicago households on Wednesday.

Emanuel supporters also weighed in on Chicago media with television and radio ads calling on the union to end the strike. Democrats for Education Reform, a group backed by major financiers, hedge funds and philanthropists, ran an ad quoting from Chicago newspapers saying the union should go back to work.

The strike in Barack Obama's home city has put the U.S. president in a tough spot. Emanuel is a former top aide to Obama and the president is counting on labor unions to drum up support for his re-election on November 6. Obama's own Education Department has championed some of the reforms Emanuel is seeking.

BUDGET BUSTING

Both sides agree Chicago schools need fixing. Chicago students consistently perform poorly on standardized math and reading tests. About 60 percent of high school students graduate, compared with 75 percent nationwide.

More than 80 percent of Chicago public school students qualify for free school lunches because they come from low-income households.

The fight does not appear to center on wages, with the school district offering an average 16 percent increase over four years and some benefit improvements.

But a major credit rating agency on Thursday warned that Chicago cannot afford the salary rises it is offering the teachers, and any deal will bust the budget.

"It's highly likely that actual salary increases will exceed budgeted salary increases," Moody's Investor Services said.

Rating agencies already have downgraded the debt rating of the school district, which means it might have to pay a higher interest rate to issue debt to finance deficits.

(Additional reporting by James Kelleher, Nick Carey and Greg McCune; Writing by Peter Bohan; Editing by Xavier Briand, Stacey Joyce and Cynthia Osterman)

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Comments (14)
wild_dingo wrote:
The kids are loving it!!!,The kids are loving it!!!. Finally they get a break from those, useless union teachers, who don’t give a flying “fork” about them and only care about collecting their paychecks. Let those kids “stay in the backyard and play with sticks” (George Carlin), so they can learn to think for themselves & question everything around, especially authority. And let those so called “teachers” rot on the streets over the winter,let see how many of them would make it through.

Sep 12, 2012 10:27pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
dualcitizen wrote:
“Being on the sidelines at the moment is fine. As long as it gets settled in a reasonable time period, no one’s going to blame the president,” Dick Simpson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of Obama.
Of course not, IT’S BUSH’S FAULT!

Sep 12, 2012 12:05am EDT  --  Report as abuse
iamscubasteve wrote:
Can anyone say mandatory federal mediation? Teachers get back in class. Our kids are the future and this strike isn’t helping form them at all. Electricians are not allowed to stike and must go thru federal mediation because of the importance of their job. Our kids are even more important. I agree that the testing isn’t a apples to apples comparison given major differences in parental involvement between communities. That said suck it up and get back in class and let mediators hash it out.

Sep 12, 2012 12:10am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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