Chicago teachers strike is headache for Obama ally
By AP - CHICAGO
11th September 2012 11:15 AM
Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday in Chicago, the third-largest U.S. school district, creating a tense political standoff for Mayor Rahm Emanuel just as the former chief aide to President Barack Obama takes on a larger role in his former boss's campaign.
The walkout by 26,000 teachers and support staff forced hundreds of thousands of parents to scramble for a place to send idle children and created an unwelcome political distraction for Emanuel. In a year when labor unions have been losing ground nationwide, the implications were sure to extend far beyond Chicago, particularly for districts engaged in similar debates.
City officials acknowledged that children left unsupervised — especially in neighborhoods with a history of gang violence — might be at risk, but vowed to protect the nearly 350,000 students' safety.
The two sides resumed negotiations Monday but failed to reach a settlement, meaning the strike will extend into at least a second day. Chicago School Board President David Vitale told reporters that board and union negotiators did not even get around to bargaining on the two biggest issues.
"This is a long-term battle that everyone's going to watch," said Eric Hanuskek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. "Other teachers unions in the United States are wondering if they should follow suit."
Thousands of teachers and their supporters took over several downtown streets during the Monday evening rush. Police secured several blocks around district headquarters as the crowds marched and chanted.
The strike in Obama's hometown quickly got caught up in election-year politics, as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Chicago teachers were turning their backs on thousands of students and accused Obama of siding with the striking teachers.
Obama's top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the teachers and the city to settle quickly.
The strike's timing seems inopportune for Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff whose city administration was already wrestling with a spike in murders and shootings in some city neighborhoods before he agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama's re-election.
Emanuel and the union officials have much at stake. Unions and collective bargaining by public employees have recently come under criticism in many parts of the U.S., and all sides are closely monitoring who might emerge with the upper hand in the Chicago dispute as Election Day looms in November.
The union had vowed to strike Monday if there was no agreement on a new contract, even though the district had offered a 16 percent raise over four years and the two sides had essentially agreed on a longer school day. With an average annual salary of $76,000, Chicago teachers are among the highest-paid in the nation, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.
But negotiators were still divided on job security measures and a system for evaluating teachers that hinged in part on students' standardized test scores.
The strike in a district where the vast majority of students are poor and minority put Chicago at the epicenter of a struggle between big cities and teachers unions for control of schools.
Romney, who has been critical of public employee unions, said he was disappointed by the Chicago teachers' decision to walk out of negotiations and sides with parents and students over unionized teachers, in a statement released Monday hours before he was set to land in Chicago for fundraisers.
"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," Romney said.
Emanuel, who said he would work to end the strike quickly, struck back at Romney's statement.
"While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," he told reporters. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass ... the president."
Obama political aides in Chicago also criticized Romney for seeking political advantage and pointed to Romney's repeated campaign statements that class sizes do not impact students' education.
"Playing political games with local disputes won't help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was monitoring the situation in his hometown but was not eager to take on a role in the dispute.
"We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago's students," Carney told reporters.
Some 140 schools were being kept open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. so the children who rely on free meals provided by the school district can eat breakfast and lunch, school district officials said.
The school district asked community organizations to provide additional programs for students, and a number of churches, libraries and other groups plan to offer day camps and other activities.
Police Chief Garry McCarthy said he would take officers off desk duty and deploy them to deal with any teachers' protests as well as the thousands of students who could be roaming the streets.
Union leaders and district officials were not far apart in their negotiations on compensation, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. But other key issues remain unresolved, she said.
Lewis said among the issues of concern was a new evaluation that she said would be unfair to teachers because it relied too heavily on students' standardized test scores and does not take into account external factors that affect performance, including poverty, violence and homelessness.
She said the evaluations could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs within two years. City officials disagreed and said the union has not explained how it reached that conclusion.
Obama has urged accountability in teachers — moves that union leaders have opposed. For instance, Obama's administration has favored pilot programs that challenge current practices, rewarding schools who try new approaches and has pushed for longer school days.
Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who pushed for changes that unions opposed.
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