RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Though public school students in Chicago returned to class this week, they may not be there for long. The school district is teetering on the edge of a strike. Teachers say they'll walk out Monday morning if tense weekend negotiations don't bring a contract. It would be the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years. Linda Lutton of member station WBEZ in Chicago has the story.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is your recess time. Do you know what that means?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is your play time. OK?
LINDA LUTTON, BYLINE: At Parker Elementary school on Chicago's South Side, students are jumping double Dutch and hula-hooping. For many of the kids on this playground this is the first time they've ever had recess.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Line them up.
LUTTON: It's part of a longer school day pushed for by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In a deal worked out between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district, elementary kids are now in school for about an hour and 15 minutes longer every day. But after 10 months of talks, teachers and school officials say they're still far apart on some other significant issues.
Chicago's contract battle pits a powerful mayor intent on shaking up the schools against a fiery labor leader who says the mayor's reforms are meant to cripple the union and will hurt public education.
In downtown Chicago on Labor Day, with thousands of teachers chanting along, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called Mayor Emanuel a bully.
KAREN LEWIS: The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to a bully.
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LUTTON: The mayor has pursued a longer school day, a longer school year, a new system for evaluating teachers. And the district has ignored union demands for greater job protection as it closes down low-performing schools and opens non-union charters. Teacher Mary Knuerr considers the mayor's reforms out of touch with what schools need to improve.
MARY KNUERR: I think that we're looking out for the kids. We're trying to get lower class sizes, quality education throughout the school day, spending time with the arts.
LUTTON: If teachers do walk out, the district plans to keep 144 safety net schools open for half days to serve students breakfast and lunch. They'll be staffed by employees not in the teachers' union. But schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll says the district is urging teachers to continue negotiating.
BECKY CARROLL: There's no reason that we can't find the common ground needed to avoid a strike.
LUTTON: Earlier this week, the union scoffed at an offer of two percent raises in each of the next four years. The school district says it's broke, that it faces a $665 million budget hole.
Marty West, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, says teacher strikes are high-stakes affairs. That's one reason we haven't seen many. But he says all eyes are on Chicago.
MARTY WEST: Many districts are in a situation not too different from Chicago's, and how this plays out, I think, will be important in determining what goes on nationally.
LUTTON: West says a combination of tight education budgets, similar reform efforts, and union opposition could be just the recipe for more threatened teacher strikes nationwide.
Many teachers, like Mary Knuerr, note that a teacher strike in President Obama's hometown would be problematic, especially as Democrats court union votes. She hopes the president is telling that to his former chief of staff.
KNUERR: You know, hopefully Barack Obama's getting in his ear and telling him, let's meet them halfway.
LUTTON: Both sides are expected to remain at the bargaining table this weekend.
For NPR News, I'm Linda Lutton.
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