Chicago Schools Remain Just Barely in Session

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TEACHERS in Chicago will soon have an opportunity to give more than just instruction in the classroom. They may sacrifice some of their pay to keep schools open.

Members of the Chicago teachers' union will vote Oct. 21 on a tentative contract with the Chicago Board of Education requiring them to loan a portion of their pension funds to help erase the school system's $300 million budget deficit. The contract would also require teachers to contribute 1.5 percent of their gross salaries toward health care premiums.

The vote on the two-year contract is the latest episode in a six-week political crisis in which the nation's third largest school system has repeatedly been on the verge of shutting down.

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The agreement arose only after a federal judge pressured teachers, politicians, and bureaucrats into subordinating their political and financial self-interest to the education of the city's 411,000 public school students.

Since late August federal judges have filed four injunctions keeping the schools open as teachers and school board officials failed to break a deadlock in contract talks.

Even if teachers approve the contract, the school crisis will be far from over. Figuring in the teachers' concessions, Chicago still would not balance the school budget and satisfy a state law barring the city's schools from operating in the red. And it would have to win approval for the contract from state lawmakers in order to ensure schools remain open.

But the Illinois legislature has taken little action to support inner-city education and backers of the contract are far from securing the majority necessary to pass the school package.

State lawmakers have steadily withdrawn their financial support for Chicago schools. Ten years ago Illinois paid for 48 percent of the public education budget in Chicago. Today it pays just 33 percent.

``We as parents are pretty outraged, we really think these legislators have totally abandoned public education in Illinois,'' says Bernard Noven, chairman of Parents United for Responsible Education, an advocacy organization.

``You've got so many conflicting political agendas and such a lack of concern about children in this city, that I think more and more people are giving up on their legislators,'' Mr. Noven says.

Like state and city politicians, some critics say, many Chicago teachers have also put money and politics before learning. Several teachers at Percy Julian High School on the south side of Chicago phoned in sick in protest over the contract concessions. The school had to shut its doors to its 1,500 students for the day.

Turmoil and uncertainty in the school system is not new to parents and students. Chicago teachers went on strike for 16 days in 1987, a move that prompted a sweeping policy of decentralization in the schools soon thereafter. Moreover, Chicago schools have opened late 10 times in the past 25 years. The schools opened one week late in September as the union and school board sought agreement on a contract.

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