CHICAGO (Reuters) - The union for Chicago teachers and the third largest U.S. school district said they will try on Thursday to make a final push to settle a strike that has drawn national attention to the sweeping education reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
As the strike of 29,000 public school teachers and support staff prepared to enter a fourth day, negotiators for the first time expressed optimism that the nasty fight could end soon.
"We would like to get this done. I think everybody would like to get this done," a smiling Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said late on Wednesday.
She and Chicago School Board President David Vitale said they had made considerable progress toward a compromise.
Chicago has become the focal point of a debate over how to reform troubled urban schools and the outcome could have a ripple effect in cities across the country.
Lewis, a former high school chemistry teacher, led the teachers on strike Sunday saying the union could not accept what it considered misguided reforms that were hurting poor neighbourhoods.
She has rallied teachers to her cause with enthusiastic marches and pickets throughout the city at a time when a weakened U.S. labour movement has lost several fights over collective bargaining and benefits such as pensions.
While the teachers' loud protests have received more attention, Emanuel has powerful backers in the fight over education reform as well.
National reform groups who support the tougher performance evaluations for teachers sought by Emanuel began running broadcast ads in Chicago media this week.
One radio ad paid for by a group called Democrats for Education Reform, a coalition of wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs, asked listeners to sign an online petition calling on the union to go back to work.
The new optimism in the negotiations followed days of acrimony and deadlock over two key issues -- how to evaluate teachers and whether principals should have more authority to hire the teachers in their schools.
Neither Lewis nor Vitale, who is Emanuel's chief negotiator, would give details of compromises on those issues.
But teacher evaluations have been at the heart of the national school reform drive.
Emanuel was proposing that Chicago teachers be evaluated based on a system that would rate teachers in several categories. Administrators would observe them in the classroom. Students would be asked about teacher strengths and weaknesses. And, most controversially, many teachers would be assessed based on their students' performance on standardized tests.
The union fiercely opposes using standardized test results, arguing that many Chicago students perform poorly on the tests because they come to school hungry and live in poor and crime-ridden neighbourhoods. They also say that class sizes are too large to teach children effectively.
Wages do not appear to be a sticking point in the talks, with the district offering a 16 percent rise over four years and some improved benefits.
President Barack Obama has stayed out of the dispute between his former top White House aide Emanuel, and organized labour, which he needs to help get out the vote in the presidential election on November 6. The White House has urged the two sides to settle it quickly.
Parents have struggled to balance child care and work during the strike. The city set up nearly 150 centres to house children for most of the day and feed them breakfast and lunch. But only a fraction of the 350,000 students out of school came to the centres.
Some parents said they did not want to cross picket lines set up by the union outside the centres and others said they felt children were safer at home.
Both sides in the dispute agree Chicago schools need to be improved. Students perform poorly on standardized tests and only around 60 percent of high school students graduate, well below the national average.
"Teachers feel beaten down throughout the country," said Randi Weingarten, national president of the union including the Chicago teachers. "They feel beaten down because of austerity, because of test- rather than teacher-driven policies, because of a spike in poverty, because of the demand on them to do more with less -- and then blame them when that doesn't work out."
"That's what's created all the frustration that you hear on the picket line," she said.
Reporting By Greg McCune; Editing by Toby Chopra