CHICAGO – For the first time in a quarter century, Chicago teachers walked out of the classroom Monday, taking a bitter contract dispute over evaluations and job security to the streets of the nation’s third-largest city – and to a national audience – less than a week after most schools opened for fall.
The walkout forced hundreds of thousands of parents to scramble for a place to send idle children and created an unwelcome political distraction for Mayor Rahm 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.
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 said board and union negotiators did not even get around to bargaining on the two biggest issues, performance evaluations or recall rights for laid-off teachers. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said that was because the district did not change its proposals.
“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.”
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.
Emanuel, who has sought major reforms while also confronting the district’s $700 million budget shortfall, acknowledged his own fight with the union, even as he urged a quick resolution.
“Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me,” he told reporters Monday.
As negotiators resumed talks, 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 protesters planned to rally through the evening at an event that resembled a family street fair. Balloons, American flags and homemade signs hung above the crowd.
Teacher Kimberly Crawford said she was most concerned about issues such as class size and the lack of air conditioning.
“It’s not just about the raise,” she said. “I’ve worked without a raise for two years.”
The strike quickly became part of the presidential campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney said teachers were turning their backs on students and Obama was siding with the striking teachers in his hometown.
Obama’s top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the sides to settle quickly.
Emanuel, who just agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama’s re-election, dismissed Romney’s comments as “lip service.”
Lewis, the Chicago union president, suggested the city’s proposal could put thousands of teachers’ careers at risk because the evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores and does not take into account such factors as poverty, violence and homelessness.
Teachers “have no control over those scores,” said union coordinator John Kugler.
The union feared 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.
The strike involving more than 25,000 teachers meant no school for 350,000 students and raised the worries of parents who were concerned not just about their kids’ education but their safety. Gang violence in some parts of the city has spiked in recent months.
“They’re going to lose learning time,” said Beatriz Fierro, whose daughter is in the fifth grade. “And if the whole afternoon they’re going to be free, it’s bad. Of course you’re worried.”