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“They need to be at school and learning,” she said. “I don’t want my children or others to get off track.”

Teacher Kimberly Crawford said she is most concerned about issues such as class size and the lack of air conditioning.

“It’s not just about the raise,” she said. “I’ve worked without a raise for two years.”

So teachers walked the picket lines at the schools in the morning, then thousands of educators and their supporters took over several downtown streets during the Monday evening rush. Police secured several blocks around district headquarters as the crowds marched and chanted.

The strike quickly became part of the presidential campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney said teachers were turning their backs on students and that Obama was siding with the striking teachers in his hometown. Obama’s top spokesman said the president has not taken sides and is urging both the union and district to settle the dispute quickly.

Emanuel, who recently agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama’s re-election, dismissed Romney’s comments as “lip service.”

But one labor expert said a major strike unfolding in the shadow of the November election could only hurt a president who desperately needs the votes of workers, including teachers, in battleground states.

“I can’t imagine this is good for the president and something he can afford to have go on for more than a week,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For two decades, contract agreements have slowly eroded teachers’ voices, Bruno said. “But this signals to other collective bargaining units that the erosion of teachers’ rights isn’t inevitable. They (the union members) are telling them, ‘You don’t have to roll over.’”

Emanuel, who has engaged in a public and often contentious battle with the union, is not personally negotiating, but he’s monitoring the talks through aides.

Not long after his election, the mayor’s office rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers. Then he asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day for students by 90 minutes, a request the union turned down.

Emanuel, who promised a longer school day during his campaign, attempted to go around the union by asking teachers at individual schools to waive the contract and add 90 minutes to the day. He halted the effort after being challenged by the union before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

The district and union agreed in July on a deal to implement the longer school day, crafting a plan to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours. That raised hopes the contract dispute would be settled soon, but bargaining stalled on the other issues.

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.