Chicago teachers strike amid signs that deal isn't close
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CHICAGO -- Teachers in the nation's third-largest school district went on strike Monday after negotiations for a new contract collapsed, giving some 350,000 students an unexpected day off, but leading to frustrations among parents and indications that a settlement may not be close.
Chicago Public Schools and the union representing teachers have been embroiled for months in a bitter dispute over wages, job security and performance evaluations.
City officials said negotiations had resumed Monday and that two issues remained unresolved: the fate of laid-off teachers and whether they ought to have priority in future job openings, and a new teacher evaluation system, which union leaders say would be based far too heavily on student test scores. But the teachers union said it remained at odds with the city over a number of things, including compensation, teacher training, health benefits and a schedule for air conditioning in all schools, as well as the evaluation system. The two sides agreed last month on a plan to extend the school day.
Coming during the second week of school after the end of summer vacation, the strike has already affected hundreds of thousands of families who have had to rearrange work schedules, take the day off or hire baby sitters.
Dondreia Talbert, the mother of a 4-year-old, Trae'verion, said Monday that she was sympathetic to the teachers' position but that she had misgivings about their walking out on students. "I know these teachers personally, and I see the work they do," she said. "They deserve everything they're asking for, and I hope they get it, but they should have never taken it to the strike level."
At Lane Tech College Prep, on the city's North Side, most of the high school's 250 teachers had already assembled by Monday morning as they prepared to staff picket lines. They wore red union T-shirts and carried signs saying "Honk If You Love a Teacher." Many passing motorists responded with incessant horn-blowing. "We're ready to stay out as long as it takes to get a fair contract and protect our schools," said Steve Parsons, who teaches Advanced Placement psychology.
Chicago is the first Illinois district to try to put in place a new teacher evaluation system. In an interview last month, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said: "We need to recommit ourselves to public education. I don't mean training, narrowing the curriculum, which is what we've seen, to what's testable or measurable."
Ms. Lewis said teachers in schools serving impoverished communities would not be able to overcome other social factors that contribute to students' performance on tests. "We have communities that have been neglected for decades, and all of a sudden we're expecting something to happen in a vacuum," she said. "I would like to see a commitment to bringing jobs and grocery stores, for God sakes, back into the communities that our children live in."
The strike, only a few hours hold, had already found its way into the presidential campaign, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney releasing a statement saying, "Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet." He blamed President Barack Obama for supporting teachers unions.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama's former chief of staff, bristled at Mr. Romney's remarks.
When Mr. Emanuel took office last year, he designated public schools improvement as one of his priorities, but now faces arduous political terrain certain to accompany Chicago's first public schools strike in 25 years. Negotiations have occurred behind closed doors since November and have been far from smooth. Ms. Lewis in recent days has called Mr. Emanuel a "bully" and a "liar."
First Published September 11, 2012 12:00 am