Negotiators were back behind closed doors Tuesday on the second day of Chicago's teachers strike, but publicly the teachers union and school board couldn't even agree on whether they were close to a deal.
The union issued a statement at midday saying negotiators had returned to the bargaining table and were discussing one of the most serious remaining issues, a new teacher evaluation system. But the union said it had signed off on only six of 48 articles in the contract and that the two sides had "a considerable way to go."
"To say that this contract will be settled today is lunacy," union President Karen Lewis said at one of several sites around the city where teachers gathered to chant and wave placards.
School board officials have repeatedly described the two sides as being close and suggested bargaining could be wrapped up quickly with agreements on the evaluations and a dispute about the recall of teachers who lose their jobs.
Earlier, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reiterated his belief that the strike could have been avoided altogether. At an appearance with principals and former principals, he addressed another sticking point over how teachers are hired, insisting that principals — not the city or the union — should have full control to pick their team.
"I don't think downtown should be in the business of selecting teachers that the local school principal should select if you're going to hold them accountable," Emanuel said, as several hundred protesting teachers chanted and banged on drums.
A group of seven educators backed him up. One was Mahalia Hines, a member of the Board of Education and a former principal at a school in the violent Englewood neighborhood. She said it was essential that she be allowed to choose her staff "in that war zone."
"If I'm a principal and you're going to hold me accountable, you're going to fire me. I want to pick my people," she said.
Meanwhile, parents and caregivers were once again scrambling to figure out what to do with more than 350,000 idle children. On Monday, only about 18,000 students showed up at schools and other venues where authorities organized activities and provided meals for those in need. That means the vast majority of parents have to make alternative arrangements or leave their children unsupervised through the day.
The walkout — less than a week after most schools opened for fall — has 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.
"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 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 some teachers said raises were less important to them than other issues.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he took officers off desk duty and deployed them to deal with any protests as well as the scores of students who might be roaming the streets, but police said there were no incidents on Monday.
Renee Conley, whose husband dropped off their two elementary-age children and a granddaughter at Mays Elementary — where some picketers yelled "don't go in!" — said she doesn't blame the teachers and thinks Emanuel should give them what they want "because he's not in the classroom with those kids."
"They need to be at school and learning," she said. "I don't want my children or others to get off track."
The strike has quickly become part of the presidential campaign. On Monday, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said teachers were turning their backs on students and that Obama was siding with the striking teachers in his hometown. Obama's top spokesman said the president has not taken sides and is urging both the union and district to settle the dispute quickly.
Emanuel, who recently agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama's re-election, dismissed Romney's comments as "lip service."
But one labor expert said a major strike unfolding in the shadow of the November election could only hurt a president who desperately needs the votes of workers, including teachers, in battleground states.
"I can't imagine this is good for the president and something he can afford to have go on for more than a week," said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For two decades, contract agreements have slowly eroded teachers' voices, Bruno said. "But this signals to other collective bargaining units that the erosion of teachers' rights isn't inevitable. They (the union members) are telling them, 'You don't have to roll over.'"
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