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Power Struggle Over Future Of Public Schools Heats Up In Chicago


Here's a recipe for gridlock. Take a school system with almost 400,000 students that barely has enough money to pay its bills this year. Add in more than 30,000 teachers and staff members working without a contract. Mix that with a mayor under siege and a new governor who is threatening to take over the city's schools, and you have Chicago. Here's Becky Vevea of member station WBEZ.

BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: The power struggle of the future of the nation's third-largest school district involves these three key players - Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Emanuel and Lewis much like divorced parents with totally different parenting styles. The mayor favors more privately-run charter schools and famously pushed for a longer school day and year. The union wants the district to invest in existing schools instead, adding more art, music, counselors and librarians.

KAREN LEWIS: Does the mayor want quality schools for our students? If he does, then he must understand that good working conditions in our buildings are good learning conditions for our students.

VEVEA: But none of this can happen without money. The story of how Chicago schools got into this financial mess is a torturous one. But to continue the analogy, the mayor and the union are living in a house that's financially underwater. They've maxed out all their credit cards and they can't agree on how to make ends meet. That's making the latest round of teacher contract negotiations especially tough. Last week, the two sides thought they had a deal, but teachers balked at the last minute. Here's Karen Lewis.

LEWIS: Forcing someone to agree to a bad deal by threatening them is - we're not going to be bullied. We don't tolerate it in the schools with the kids.

VEVEA: Then, amid all the public bickering, Illinois's new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, stepped in.


BRUCE RAUNER: The state should be able to take over the schools, manage those contracts properly, restructure things, and bankruptcy should be an option.

VEVEA: Did you get that? Kind of like a close relative wanting custody of the kids, Rauner threatened to take control of the city schools, and declare bankruptcy to wipe out all the district's debt and void its union contracts altogether. Rauner currently doesn't have the authority to do that. Emanuel argues his rhetoric just hurts the students.


RAHM EMANUEL: They are not a pawn in your political maneuvers.

VEVEA: The governor's comments also appear to have spooked Wall Street just as the city sold $725 million in junk bonds. The interest rate rose to 8-and-a-half percent. Yet nothing brings together two enemies like having a common one, and Rauner's rhetoric seems to have drawn the mayor and the Teachers Union closer together. Here's Emanuel talking about Lewis.

EMANUEL: She does a good job. She's not shy in telling you what she thinks.

VEVEA: In an interview with WBEZ last week, Lewis also says she will absolutely team up with Emanuel to fight the governor's proposal.

LEWIS: Thank you, Gov. Rauner, Gov. Emperor-with-no-clothes. You know, we appreciate that.

VEVEA: The school district and the union say they're still meeting almost daily, seeking an agreement that will save money and respect teachers. But just today, Chicago principals are being told to slash their second semester budgets. All of this is causing anxiety for parents like Rich Lenkov, who attended a school funding forum last night.

RICH LENKOV: I like the parties that just get together and solve the issue without being so childish about it, to be honest. I mean - you know, as parents, we want the issue fixed.

VEVEA: Lenkov has a kindergartner and fifth grader at a nearby elementary school. He wants the adults to stop all the finger-pointing and the name-calling and, well, act like adults to fix these problems. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.