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Chicago Strike Unfolds Amid Frustration, Confusion

Chicago

The first strike in the Windy City in 25 years has begun, pitting Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a battle over wages and the city's policy direction as some 25,000 teachers took to the streets today.

Union members began gathering as early as 6:30 this morning at the Chicago Board of Education's headquarters, located downtown in the city's Loop section. By 8:00 a.m., the picketers were in full swing, with union members, all dressed in CTU red, holding signs and chanting.

"We need teachers, we need books; we need the money that Rahm took," they chanted, referencing the 4 percent wage increase that the board rescinded last year.

At that hour, most of the picketers were social workers and non-instructional personnel; teachers had been instructed to picket at their own schools. But by 10:30, teachers were beginning to converge on the headquarters, in preparation for a rally scheduled for 3:00 p.m. that thousands were expected to attend. A giant, inflatable rat, apparently borrowed from another city union, stood outside the building.

Union members I interviewed pointed to class sizes and concerns about test-based teacher evaluations as major issues in the strike. Beyond that, they cited a general feeling that they are not being listened to.

"At every opportunity and benefit we have to serve kids, we are not given respect," Karyn L. Aguirre, a school social worker, told me. "Our case loads are too high; they don't allow us to give the kids what they need."

Her colleague Keena Washington, a speech-language pathologist, scoffed at the notion that budget troubles are preventing the district from hiring more staff, one of the CTU's main objectives. After all, she said, Chicago schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is being paid more than his predecessor, Ron Huberman.

Also among the women's other complaints: The continued opening of charter schools; the fact that Mayor Emanuel had not, according to press accounts, himself participated in the negotiations; and a perceived inequality in school funding and curricula. In fact, that's one reason why Aguirre told me she'd enrolled her own son in a private school.

Community groups supportive of public school parents were also on hand.

"The contract negotiations have been going on since November, but the disrespect of teachers and parents and poor communities has been happening since 2004," said Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has a longstanding relationship with the CTU. Brown was referring to the Renaissance 2020 initiative, begun during U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's tenure as Chicago schools superintendent.

Brown said that he objected in particular to school closures that resulted from the initiative. The closures were intended both to reflect enrollment declines and facilitate charter school openings, which Brown contended displaced students and cost teachers their jobs.

National Reaction

The city today finally made public the details of its last-known proposal to the union, which included a 16 percent pay raise over four years and limited "recall rights" or reassignment depending on whether teachers were displaced due to a school closure or turnaround. The union's proposal was not immediately available, but at one point included a 19 percent hike in the first year of a new contract alone.

By early afternoon Monday, the two sides were back in negotiations. "Yes, they are in talks right now," a district spokesperson confirmed. "We don't have any additional information about that."

The strike has drawn national attention, and has put the Obama administration in a particularly tricky spot, given that the president and Secretary Duncan both have connections to Chicago schools. Pundits wondered whether the strike could cut into Obama's post-convention bump or even help to shape the outcome of the election.

Secretary Duncan on Monday had yet to weigh in publicly on the strike. President Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said today he couldn't speculate as to whether Duncan or the president would get involved.

"It's our view that the sides in this can and should work it out," Carney said. "I think that we believe that both sides fought to resolve this in a way that recognizes that the children must be preeminent. ..."

Parents Scramble

For Chicago parents, the implications of the strike hit much closer to home, as they scrambled to make alternative arrangements for child care.

In 144 schools, the district was offering a contingency plan called "Children First" that will provide arts, games, and athletic activities—but no instruction—for kids whose parents have no other alternatives. The union had protested the program as a potential "train wreck."

To get a sense of what things were like at these schools, I took the El down to Beidler Elementary, a school on Chicago's troubled West side. There, too, teachers were picketing.

The district officials inside were friendly, but wouldn't let me check in on how the Children First program was operating. The district was permitting walk-throughs in only three schools due to a high volume of media requests. (I'll be sure to visit them tomorrow.)

What struck me at Beidler, though, was how little the parents I spoke to seemed to know about the reasons behind the strike, despite the rhetoric both district and union have been using to advance their cases.

"I didn't know how serious it was," one parent (who asked not be identified by name) told me when I asked for her thoughts on the strike. "This is at every school. I don't know about everybody else, but if the teachers don't get their money, it's trouble; the babysitter can't pick [my daughter] up at this hour."

As a 24-year-old single mom trying to complete a degree at a local college, she said she was lucky that her mother was able to take care of her daughter for the rest of the day, so that she could attend a class.

That said, she acknowledged she wasn't convinced about the quality of the school's education.

"I can't afford some private school," she said. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be getting or what she's supposed to be learning. The stuff that comes home in this book bag is not invigorating work."

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil and Contributing Editor Liana Heitin provided reporting from Washington.

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