* Negotiators make progress on most vexing issues
* Union opposed to evaluations based on student test scores
* Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson tries to intervene
By Renita Young
CHICAGO, Sept 12 The Chicago Teachers Union and
the nation's third-largest school district expressed optimism
for the first time late on Wednesday that a strike could end
soon, after they made good progress toward an agreement on
education reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But negotiators said there was still much work to do on a
deal and teachers would stay out of school for a fourth day on
"Plan for something for your children tomorrow and let's
hope for something (an agreement) Friday," said a smiling Karen
Lewis, the teachers union president, after talks went late into
the night on Wednesday.
Lewis, who has harshly criticized the mayor and his
negotiators, struck a much more conciliatory tone as she emerged
from the talks just before midnight on Wednesday.
"We made a lot of progress today. We are definitely coming
much closer together," Lewis said.
For the first time in days, Emanuel's chief negotiator,
School Board President David Vitale, agreed with Lewis' summary
of the talks. Only 24 hours earlier, Vitale had threatened not
to come back to the negotiating table until the union put
forward a better offer.
"We had a very productive evening," Vitale said. "We all go
away hopeful that we can go come together on this."
With more than 350,000 children out of school, the patience
of parents had begun to fray as hopes of a quick resolution to
the biggest U.S. labor strike in a year faded.
Earlier in the day, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who
is based in Chicago, appeared at the site where negotiations
were supposed to take place on Wednesday and said that he had
met with both sides separately to urge them to settle.
Lewis said the progress on Wednesday was on the two most
vexing issues - using student test scores to evaluate teachers
and giving more authority to principals to hire teachers.
The union is concerned that more than a quarter of its
membership could be fired because the teachers work in poor
neighborhoods where students perform poorly on standardized
tests, which Emanuel wants to use to evaluate teachers.
Lewis also said the union fears Emanuel plans to close
scores of schools, putting unionized teachers out of work.
Lewis led the walkout on Monday of more than 29,000 teachers
and support staff, saying the union would not agree to school
reforms it considers misguided and disrespectful.
The dispute jolted the United States, where a weakened labor
movement seldom stages strikes and even less frequently wins
them. Organized labor has lost several fights in the last year
including Wisconsin stripping public sector unions of most of
their bargaining power, Indiana making union dues voluntary and
two California cities voting to pare pensions for union workers.
The strike in Barack Obama's home city has also put the U.S.
president in a tough spot between his ally and former top White
House aide Emanuel and labor unions Obama is counting on to win
re-election on Nov. 6.
Obama has said nothing in public about the dispute, allowing
administration surrogates to urge the two sides to settle.
Obama's own Education Department has championed some of the
reforms Emanuel is seeking, and a win for the ambitious Chicago
mayor would add momentum to the national school reform movement.
NO COMMON GROUND?
The city is operating 147 schools with non-union staff to
offer meals and "keep children safe and engaged," but only a
fraction of parents have been using that option, officials said.
At Disney elementary school, several dozen strikers with
homemade signs targeting Emanuel and school policies picketed in
cool, sunny weather on Wednesday.
Kent Barnhart, a music teacher for the past 25 years, said
neighborhood parents had been supportive, offering water and
opening their homes and even joining picket lines to march. But
he said teachers were frustrated with the slow talks.
"It's difficult for us to understand why they have not truly
discussed over the last 11 months things that have been very
important," he said of school officials. "It didn't seem like
they took it seriously - really important things like
evaluations, health benefits and pay."
Both sides agree Chicago schools need fixing. Chicago
students consistently perform poorly on standardized math and
reading tests. About 60 percent of high school students
graduate, compared with 75 percent nationwide and more than 90
percent in some affluent Chicago suburban schools.
The fight does not appear to center on wages, with the
school district offering an average 16 percent rise over four
years and some benefit improvements.
More than 80 percent of Chicago public school students
qualify for free lunches at school because they come from