No deal in Chicago as strike talks drag on

CHICAGO Fri Sep 14, 2012 8:52am EDT

1 of 3. Chicago Teachers Union members, including Psycologist Jennifer Harte, listen to an update about negotiations as they picket outside the CPS headquarters in Chicago on the fourth day of their strike, September 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/John Gress

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago students marked a week off classes on Friday as hopes of an imminent end to a teachers' strike proved optimistic and tedious negotiations over education reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel dragged on.

Led by a fiery former high school chemistry teacher, Karen Lewis, 29,000 public school teachers and support staff walked out on Sunday in the first Chicago Teachers Union strike since 1987.

The confrontation, the largest strike in the United States in a year, has galvanized the U.S. labor movement and exposed a rift within the Democratic party over reform of urban schools.

After negotiating long into the night, Lewis and Chicago School Board President David Vitale emerged early on Friday morning to say no deal had yet been reached.

"We had another good day of working ... I think that we made some pretty good progress," Vitale said, adding that he hoped the two sides could secure a deal on Friday.

Lewis called a meeting of the union's House of Delegates, a bigger consultative body, for Friday afternoon to discuss the status of the talks. That group has the authority to end the strike but a lawyer for the union, Robert Bloch, said that was unlikely unless there was a finalized contract.

Parents of 350,000 kindergarten, elementary and high school students were forced to find alternative child care, kept their children at home or took them to nearly 150 centers around Chicago set up by the city to provide breakfast, lunch and supervision.

It was not clear if school would resume on Monday. Vitale said he was optimistic classes would resume but Lewis was more guarded, saying she was not sure.

Kenwood Academy high school senior Sandy Danard, 17, who marched on Thursday to support teachers, said she risked missing the application deadlines for some colleges because she could not get a paper transcript from her school.

"The counselors aren't in school," she said, and some colleges do not take online transcripts. "It's really stressful on the seniors, and in the end when the strike finally ends, we have to rush," she said.

Extracurricular activities such as popular high school sports and the arts also have been suspended. Some 50,000 public school students at non-union charter schools attended classes as usual. Charters, which account for 12 percent of Chicago students, are controversial because they are publicly funded and the union says they undermine traditional schools.

The teachers' strike is unusual in the United States where unions have been severely weakened by state and local laws constraining their power, and union membership has fallen in a service economy. There were only 19 strikes of 1,000 workers or more in all of 2011, according to government figures.

The Chicago dispute has been fought over issues such as teacher performance evaluations and the authority of school principals, and not about traditional salary and benefits.

PARENTS BACK UNION

Teachers revolted when Emanuel, with support from a national school reform movement financed by wealthy philanthropists and bankers, tried to pin much of teacher evaluations to the results of students on standardized tests such as reading and math.

Using student test scores to rate teachers is in vogue nationally, championed by President Barack Obama's Education Department to raise standards and improve U.S. schools.

But the union argues that it forces them to teach to the test and narrows the curriculum. Chicago teachers also said they should not be evaluated on factors outside their control such as poverty and crime their students endure in some neighborhoods.

Lewis shrewdly built support among parents and teachers in Chicago's inner city communities for two years before calling the strike. The community organizing resulted in strong backing for the strike as well as enthusiastic rallies and picketing.

Two polls taken this week show parents and Chicago voters standing by the union despite the inconvenience to families.

Emanuel has retreated on his teacher evaluation demand, agreeing to phase in the new standards and lowering the percentage weighting of standardized tests.

Even that concession has not sealed a deal, as the union has taken advantage of the pressure on the mayor to press other issues on its list such as shielding members from expected layoffs when schools close.

The school district has offered average wage rises of 16 percent over four years plus some benefit improvements. It is not clear how Emanuel will pay for the wage rises as the school district has drained financial reserves and levied property taxes at the legal maximum.

Debt rating agency Moody's Investor Services said on Thursday that the rises offered by Emanuel probably would bust the school district budget and endanger its credit rating.

The high-profile labor clash in Obama's home city has been awkward for the president. Emanuel is Obama's former top White House aide and a key fundraiser for the president's re-election campaign. Unions are a key constituency of the Democratic party and will be important in getting out the vote on November 6.

(Writing By Greg McCune; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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