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Chicago teachers strike: Local issues, with national impact

September 10, 2012|By Michael Muskal

Contract talks between the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union were expected to resume on Monday after thousands of Chicago’s teachers walked off of the job overnight in what has become a national test pitting a Democrat-controlled city against unionized former allies.

More than 26,000 teachers and support staff shut down the nation’s third-largest school district, creating logistical and childcare problems for parents of the almost 400,000 students who attend the district’s schools. It was the first schools strike in Chicago in about a quarter of a century.

The issues are local, involving salaries, fringe benefits and job security, but the national impact is undeniable.

PHOTOS: Chicago teachers strike

Key issues -- such as teacher evaluations and student performance -- cross the usual partisan political lines. They've also become a concern for growing parents’ movements across the country, as communities seek to achieve educational goals in tough financial times. Further, major urban areas like Chicago face budget shortfalls.

Education issues, once almost exclusively local, are increasingly becoming  federal issues, especially in a presidential year. President Obama’s administration has pushed to end the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” program and to substitute new federal policies that will financially reward better teaching and more reasonable educational goals. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the former head of Chicago schools and has tried to bring many of his ideas to the national stage.

Not only did Obama formerly live in Chicago, the city’s mayor is Rahm Emanuel, Obama's tough-talking former chief of staff and the person who pushed strongly behind the scenes to pass the healthcare overhaul, a signature Obama issue.

In his reelection effort, Obama is courting union votes and has spoken out against GOP governors’ efforts in Midwestern states to curb union power, particularly among public employee unions. Republicans, meanwhile, have fought in states like Wisconsin to increase employee contributions for pension plans and other fringe benefits.

“This is not a strike I wanted,” Emanuel told reporters at a televised news conference Sunday night, not long after the union announced the action. “It was a strike of choice ... it's unnecessary, it's avoidable and it's wrong.”

“We will make sure our kids are safe, we will see our way through these issues and our kids will be back in the classroom where they belong,” Emanuel said.

About 140 schools were open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. so that students who receive free meals could eat breakfast and lunch, school district officials said.

Despite the strike and the resulting turmoil, the sides say there are close on some parts of an agreement, such as compensation, said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at a news conference Sunday night announcing the walkout. But the parties face roadblocks on other issues such as increased payments to fund health benefits and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students' standardized test scores, she said.

“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided,” Lewis said at her televised news conference. “We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”

Lewis said that a proposed new evaluation process would be unfair to teachers because it relies too heavily on students' standardized test scores and does not take into account such factors as urban poverty, gang violence and homelessness. She argued that as many as 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs, a figure that the city disputes.

Emanuel said the evaluation would not be binding in the first year, as teachers and administrators work to refine the program. Schools chief executive Jean-Claude Brizard said the evaluation “was not developed to be a hammer,” but to help teachers improve.

Emanuel has been monitoring the talks from outside the bargaining room, a nod to the ill feelings he has already generated with union leaders. When he took office last year, Emanuel withdrew a 4% raise for teachers to deal with budget shortfalls. He then asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2% pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day for students by 90 minutes.

The union refused.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

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