CHICAGO (Reuters) - With a Chicago Public School teachers strike in its fourth day on Thursday, some parents are looking into possible alternatives including charter or private schools.
"We're seeing some uptick in inquiries," said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic Schools at the Archdiocese of Chicago.
UNO Charter School Network, which runs non-union, publicly-funded schools, has taken in 30 new students since the strike by 29,000 public school teachers was announced, according to CEO Juan Rangel of the United Neighborhood Organization, a Latino community group.
"I assume that number is going to increase," said Rangel, who was co-chair of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's election campaign. "They (parents) want their kids in school. They don't want to have them out on the street."
The head of the Chicago Teachers Union said Thursday they were close to reaching a deal to end the strike in the nation's third-largest school district over education reforms sought by Emanuel. But it was unlikely students would be back in school before Monday, even if an agreement is reached Thursday.
The strike affecting 350,000 elementary and high school students is the biggest in the United States in the last year.
While school has been out, parents have sought alternative care for their children at local churches, with relatives, or at "Children First" programs at 147 public schools, which have taken in children for activities for half a day for the first three days, and a full day starting Thursday.
More than 50,000 Chicago public school children have not been affected by the strike, because they go to charters. These schools have been promoted by Emanuel, who said 19,000 more students want seats at charter schools than are currently available. The union criticizes Emanuel's push for charter schools, believing they undermine public education.
Charter schools already enroll about 12 percent of Chicago students. The Noble Network of Charter Schools has also had more inquiries in the past week, but the 12 high schools are full and can't take more students now, according to Rhonda Kochlefl, chief external affairs officer. She said 4,700 students are on the waiting list, and she expects that to increase.
Sister McCaughey said many parents balk when they learn the price for a Catholic education -- an average of $4,800 per year for elementary school and $8,500 for high school.
"Some folks walk in and say, 'Whoa -- can't do that'," McCaughey said. The Archdiocese enrolls 42,699 students in Chicago.
She said the schools offer scholarships for lower-income parents, but they have been given out already for the year. "It really underscores the need for school choice," she said.
Private school choices outside of Catholic school tend to be even more expensive. Tuition at the tony Latin School of Chicago, for example, is $28,985 a year for grades 5-12.
At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Rahm Emanuel sends his three children, a full day program for nursery school to grade 5 is $23,526 annually -- $25,326 for grades 6-8. President Barack Obama's daughters also attended "the Lab Schools" when they lived in Chicago.
Most parents interviewed taking their children to a "Children First" alternative program at Lorca Elementary School on Thursday said it would be hard to afford private school.
Ganna Mukhamegzyam said she may look into private school for her 6-year-old daughter Kristina but, "it's large money -- maybe for next year. We'll see."
Mukhamegzyam noted that the strike has only lasted three days so far, but it has made it hard for her to go to work. "It's a big problem," she said.
Araceli Salgado, speaking in Spanish, said she didn't think there was much difference between Catholic and public schools, and she wanted to keep her three children at public school. She said she wished school officials had talked to parents more before the strike to help them prepare.
Some parents were already thinking about a possible strike before the year began. Eva Ho told Reuters her son had gotten into a Chicago public preschool for the fall, but she decided to stick with his current private school in part because she feared a strike. "Glad we stayed," she said.
Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Stacey Joyce