STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Public school teachers in Chicago, the nation's third largest school district, are on strike today. Contract talks went into late Sunday night but failed to reach an agreement, and this marks the end of 25 years of relative labor peace in Chicago, a city with strong unions. Becky Vevea of member station WBEZ reports.
BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: More than 26,000 Chicago public school teachers are picketing around the city today, decked out in red t-shirts and carrying signs demanding a contract. Talks between the city and the union broke down last night. On one side are city officials who say they are intent on reforming the schools. On the other is the union, which says it's trying to prevent the erosion of teacher rights and the privatization of public schools. David Vitale is president of the Board of Education. He says its negotiators have given on issues of compensation and benefits.
DAVID VITALE: There's only so much money in the system. There's only so many things we can do that are available to us that we actually believe will not hurt the education agenda that we think is best for our children.
VEVEA: But union president Karen Lewis says there hasn't been enough movement on job protection, class sizes, and teacher evaluation.
KAREN LEWIS: We demand a fair contract now, and until there is one in place that our members will accept, we will be on the line.
VEVEA: The two sides have been negotiating for almost a year. Fundamentally, they have very different ideas about how to improve city's public schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school leaders want big changes, similar to the ones being pushed nationally. A longer school day and year, a new system for grading teachers, and a whole new way to pay them. The teachers union is pushing back on those efforts, argument for Emanuel to invest in what they say are under-resourced neighborhood schools. Edna Navarro-Vidaurre is a preschool teacher and has four children in public schools.
EDNA NAVARRO-VIDAURRE: Not every school has a playground. Not every school has all the specials that my kids have. If all the schools were as prepared or had all the resources that a lot of the magnet schools have, and the coveted schools have, there wouldn't be such a craziness.
VEVEA: It's a scenario playing out across the country, and it comes at a particularly bad time for the Democrats and the reelection hopes of the president. Emanuel is Obama's former chief-of-staff and a key fundraiser. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, ran Chicago schools for many years, and the president needs the unions to get out the vote. Rhoda Gutierrez is a parent with two kids in public school.
RHODA GUTIERREZ: This is a national fight, and it's something that I feel that politicians in D.C. have to pay attention to. This is where Obama came from, this is where Duncan came from. The policies in Chicago have gone national and viral.
VEVEA: This is also an awkward time for the union. It's taking a risk when unemployment is high and school district budgets are being cut. The union's demands for job security may not resonate. Emanuel says the union walked away from the table too soon.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: We're down to two issues. Finish it. Let the kids go back where they belong.
VEVEA: But more importantly, he says...
EMANUEL: This is not the right thing to do to the children. It's unnecessary, it's avoidable, and it's wrong.
VEVEA: For 350,000 of the city's kids, it's a day off, but for the teachers, it'll be spent on the picket lines. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.