* 29,000 teachers, support staff involved in walkout
* Chicago is third-largest U.S. school system
* Strike affects 350,000 secondary school students
By Mary Wisniewski and Ann Saphir
CHICAGO, Sept 10 Thousands of public school
teachers formed picket lines in Chicago on Monday and parents
scrambled for child care during their first strike in a quarter
century over reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and endorsed
by President Barack Obama's administration.
Some 29,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's
third-largest school system were involved, leaving parents of
350,000 students between kindergarten and high school age to
find alternative supervision.
"There's no excuse for either side for not coming to an
agreement," said Faith Griggs-York, mother of a first-grader at
Agassiz Elementary School, as she dropped her daughter off at a
community center a mile from the school.
"I think both sides, because of what they are doing to
parents and because of what they are doing to kids, should be
embarrassed," Griggs-York said.
Churches, community centers, some schools and other public
facilities were ready on Monday to care for thousands of
children under a $25 million strike contingency plan financed by
the school district. The children will be supervised half a day
and receive breakfast and lunch, allowing some parents to work.
"What are these families going to do? Are you going to stay
home from work today because of this?" U.S. Senator Dick Durbin,
an Illinois Democrat, said on CNN. "What is going to happen to
your son or daughter?"
"Both sides need to get back to the table as quickly as
possible and really stay there and negotiate through the night
if necessary. Get it over with quickly so we can get these kids
back in school," Durbin said.
Talks resumed on Monday morning in the months-long contract
negotiations. Emanuel is among a number of big city U.S. mayors
who have championed such school reforms and Obama's education
secretary, Arne Duncan - a former head of Chicago public schools
- has endorsed them.
The Chicago confrontation also threatens to sour relations
between Obama's Democratic Party and labor unions before the
presidential election on Nov. 6.
While Obama is expected to win the vote in Chicago and his
home state of Illinois, union anger could spill into neighboring
Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where
the race with Republican challenger Mitt Romney is much closer.
The union has called the plan to care for children during
the strike a "train wreck." It warned that caregivers for the
children do not have proper training, and there are fears of an
increase in gang-related violence in some high-crime areas.
The school district's charter schools will be open on
Monday, meaning about 50,000 public school students will be in
classes as scheduled.
About 20 teachers picketed in front of Overton Elementary
School on Chicago's South Side, wearing red T-shirts, carrying
strike signs and singing "We're not going to take it," the
chorus from the rock band Twisted Sister's popular anthem.
Several passing cars honked in support, prompting loud
cheers from the striking teachers.
Emanuel, the tough talking former White House chief of staff
for Obama, blamed the union for the strike and said the two
sides had been close to agreement. Union officials have accused
Emanuel of disregard and disrespect, which the mayor has denied.
"The kids of Chicago belong in the classroom," Emanuel said
at a Sunday night news conference after talks broke down.
Chicago offered teachers raises of 3 percent this year and
another 2 percent annually for the following three years,
amounting to an average raise of 16 percent over the duration of
the proposed contract, School Board President David Vitale said.
"This is not a small contribution we're making at a time
when our financial situation is very challenging," he said.
Laura Gunderson, a fourth-grade teacher at Nettelhorst
Elementary School, held a "proud union home" sign outside the
North Side school with 55 other teachers, aides and clerks
lining both sides of the street. Cars honked in support and
"My heart sank on Friday night when I clocked out and
realized I was not going to be teaching Monday," said Gunderson,
a teacher for 26 years.
Catherine Schaller, a math teacher at Beethoven Academic
Center, an elementary school on the South Side, said: "It's all
about people's rights. Our children have a right to a solid
education. We're going to stand up for that."
Chicago's South Side, often mentioned by first lady Michele
Obama in reference to her humble roots, is one of the city's
poorest districts and has a large African-American population.
SCHOOLS BUDGET DEFICIT
The Chicago school district, like many cities and states
across the country, is facing a financial crisis, with a
projected budget deficit of $3 billion over the next three years
and a crushing burden of pensions promised to retiring teachers.
Emanuel said two main issues remain: his proposal that
teachers be evaluated based in part on student performance on
standardized tests, and more authority for school principals.
Union President Karen Lewis, who has sharply criticized
Emanuel, said standardized tests do not take into account inner
city poverty as well as hunger and violence in the streets.
Vitale said the two sides were not far apart on compensation
issues. But he said district proposals on evaluations followed
an Illinois state law passed last year mandating a role for the
"We're following the law and while they may not like the law
we have to put it in place," Vitale said on Monday.
More than 80 percent of Chicago students qualify for free
lunches because they come from low-income households, and
Chicago students have performed poorly compared with national
averages on most reading, math and science tests.
Union officials said more than a quarter of Chicago public
school teachers could lose their jobs if they are evaluated
based on the tests.
"Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children we
do not control," Lewis said in announcing the strike.