As strike goes on, parent support wavers for Chicago teachers

Signs are mounting that parent support for striking Chicago teachers, which has been strong, is eroding the longer the strike lasts. Union will decide later Tuesday whether to accept the contract that would end the strike.

By , Staff writer

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    Chicago Teachers Union members strike outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in Chicago, Tuesday, Sept. 18.
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As Chicago residents await news Tuesday about whether the ongoing teachers strike will end or continue, parents of school-age children – perhaps the people most directly affected by the labor dispute – appear to remain mainly on the side of the union, although there are signs that their support is eroding as the strike drags on.

That may be something delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union will consider when they meet Tuesday at 3 p.m. CDT to vote on whether to accept the negotiated contract. If they reject it, classes for some 400,000 students in the Chicago Public Schools will not resume and a local court may hold a hearing Wednesday on the city's complaint that the teachers are striking illegally.

For now, many parents interviewed for this story say they support the teachers who spend the majority of the day with their children, but that the continuing work stoppage, now in its second week, is harmful to the kids and poses an economic hardship for them.

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That conflict is apparent in the comments of Sarah Liebman, who has a son and a daughter at Oscar F. Mayer Elementary School on the city’s North Side. 

"I definitely have been agreement with what they’re fighting for,” she says of the teachers, noting that she and her husband have been juggling their daily schedules to accommodate the sudden need for day care for their children.

But she also sees the effect the break in school has had on their children.

“This has definitely been an extension of summer, and I can tell my sixth-grader is getting a little antsy” to return to school, she says.

She suggests that the union and the school district could have avoided the strike by hashing out a contract during the summer, soon after union members voted to allow a strike. “They should have started earlier in the process … [and the union vote] should have raised a huge flag to CPS [Chicago Public Schools] that they were really serious," says Ms. Liebman. "We could have avoided having the kids out if discussions would have happened in July.”

On Monday, a group of parents staged a small protest in downtown Chicago outside the Merchandise Mart, where the teachers union is headquartered. Holding signs that said “350,000 CPS hostages! Let our children learn” and “If you care about the kids, go back to work,” the parents said they were frustrated that they had no voice in the negotiating process, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times. Some portrayed the walkout as resulting from nothing more than a clash of political will between Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“This process has been run to benefit the adults in the system and not to benefit the children in the system, and we’re here to send the message that the kids need to be in school while they work out the details,” protest organizer Steve Timble told the Sun-Times.

Other parents who did not take part in the protest had more empathy for their children’s teachers, but said they hoped a resolution would come this week.

If the union decides Tuesday to continue the strike, a Cook County Circuit Court judge will proceed with a court hearing Wednesday to take up a complaint that the strike is illegal. The Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel claim that Illinois law that does not allow teachers to strike over issues other than wages and benefits. The complaint also seeks an injunction to force teachers back into classrooms, saying the strike poses a threat to public health and safety.

To accommodate parents who needed day care during the strike, the school district identified 450 locations throughout the city, from public libraries to park district camps, where students would receive supervision. About 31,400 students took advantage of the programming, the district says. Other locations, including fitness clubs, the YMCA, and the famed Second City improvisational theater, also hosted day camps for kids.

Beth Wilson, a mother whose sons are in the first and third grades at Augustus H. Burley School, took advantage of different camps throughout the city for her children, but acknowledges she is hoping for a resolution on Tuesday.

“Everybody wants it to be taken care of as soon as possible,” Ms. Wilson says. “Parents wanted that last week, too.”

Her empathy remains with the teachers, especially after she learned they needed more time to digest the tentative contract that was put before the delegates late Sunday.

“Once I took my emotional attachment away and realized that they needed more time, that made more sense,” she says. “But it should be resolved today.”

If the strike continues, one possible outcome might be that some parents will consider shifting their children to private schools, says Carolyn Aberman, whose fifth-grader is at Decatur Classical School. “The longer this goes on, that will creep in the psyche of parents who might be exploring scholarships,” she says.

So far, says Ms. Aberman, she supports the teachers and does not hold accountable the teachers she knows personally.

“I do realize that this isn’t about what any individual teacher wants. There’s a union, there’s delegates, there’s a really big city we live in and a lot of different opinions, and I imagine and hope most teachers want to get back to school upon promise of fair contract,” she says. 

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