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03:09 GMT +3 hours23 December 2014
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Closing in on Deal to End Chicago Teachers Strike

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An estimated 350,000 public school students in Chicago got another day off from school Friday and a first-hand lesson in tough contract negotiations, as more than 25,000 striking teachers and school system administrators made progress on an agreement for a new contract.

An estimated 350,000 public school students in Chicago got another day off from school Friday and a first-hand lesson in tough contract negotiations, as more than 25,000 striking teachers and school system administrators made progress on an agreement for a new contract.

“I’m pleased to report that the talks today were very productive," Chicago Teachers Union attorney Robert Bloch told reporters. "We are hopeful that we will have a complete agreement to present to the union’s House of Delegates by Sunday."

School board president David Vitale said the two sides would try to finalize the details of a contract on Saturday. If the 700 union delegates vote to approve the plan on Sunday, students and teachers could be back in class on Monday. So far they have missed five days of school because of the walkout, the first teachers strike Chicago has seen since 1987.

The last contract expired in June without a new agreement in place. Among the key issues:

Teacher evaluations – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants teacher evaluations tied to student performance on standardized tests; teachers are concerned the system doesn’t take into account other factors for poor test scores, such as poverty, a student’s proficiency in English, even whether a class is equipped with air conditioning.

Compensation – Last year the city backed out of a 4% pay hike that was part of the contract . Teachers have asked for a 5.8% increase and a change in other benefits. Earlier this week the school district offered a 16% pay increase over four years.

Job security – Union leaders are concerned about the possibility of many schools closing in the near future, and are pushing for a policy to hire laid-off teachers when there’s a job opening anywhere in the district; the school system doesn’t want to force principals to hire teachers they don’t feel are qualified.

Chicago teachers are among the highest paid in the nation, with an average salary of $76,000 according to the school district.

Teacher evaluations have been a thorny topic for many U.S. school districts, including those in large cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Cleveland. But most school systems have found at least tenuous agreement with teachers through a slow, measured approach.

“It has been a very tough issue across the country,” said Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers in many places believe that they see administrations and state legislatures creating language and policies that’s nothing more than a mousetrap.”

Lawmakers in the state of Illinois approved a plan in 2010 to include student performance in teacher evaluations by the 2016-17 school year. Mayor Emanuel promised to change the way teachers are evaluated – tying their jobs more directly to student performance – years ahead of that schedule.

“When it comes to improving our schools, I will not be a patient man,” he said when he was inaugurated in May, 2011.

Emanuel’s relationship with teachers has often been tense, and tensions have grown between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools. Anger flared over plans for a longer school day and the decision to deny the scheduled pay raise.

If union delegates vote to end the strike on Sunday, then union members would vote on whether to approve the new contract in the coming weeks.