Chicago – The Chicago Teachers Union agreed on Tuesday to end its strike in the nation’s third-largest school system, allowing 350,000 children to return to classes on Wednesday and bringing to a close, at least for now, a tense standoff over issues like teacher evaluations and job security that had upended this city for more than a week.
In a private meeting on Tuesday afternoon, 800 union delegates voted overwhelmingly to suspend the strike after classes had been halted for seven school days, which left parents at loose ends and City Hall taking legal action. The delegates, who had chosen on Sunday to extend their strike rather than accept a deal reached by negotiators for the union and the Chicago Public Schools, this time decided to abandon their picket lines.
Karen Lewis, the union president, described the voice vote as 98 percent to 2 percent in favor and a sign that the deal was seen as good, though hardly perfect.
“We said that it was time — that we couldn’t solve all the problems of the world with one contract, and that it was time to suspend the strike,” she said.
The contract still requires ratification by the union’s 26,000 members. That process was expected to take several weeks, though Ms. Lewis said passage was expected.
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The terms, which appeared to provide some victories for both sides, would give annual raises to teachers, lengthen the school day and allow teachers to be evaluated, in part, with student test scores. The school system would also aim to guide laid-off teachers with strong ratings into at least half of any new job openings in the schools.
While a halt to the teachers’ strike, this city’s first in a quarter century, may end the immediate, local contract fight over pay, working conditions and job security, the episode brought to the forefront larger questions, still unanswered, about the philosophical direction of public schools here, a national agenda for educational change and the potency of unions.
And although the political players in this fight were Chicagoans — some saw it as a highly personal standoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat in his first term, and Ms. Lewis — the matter swept in national politics as well. Even as schools were closed all across President Obama’s hometown, he did not publicly take sides in a showdown that pitted Mr. Emanuel, his former chief of staff, against labor, a bloc that Democrats depend on in election years like this one.
“This settlement is an honest compromise,” Mr. Emanuel said at a news conference. “It means returning our schools to their primary purpose: the education of our children. It means a new day and a new direction for Chicago Public Schools.”
Officials at the Chicago Public Schools and City Hall, which had been seeking an injunction to end the strike under a state law that bars teachers from striking over noneconomic issues, indicated that a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday would be canceled. The city said it would withdraw its request for immediate relief, but for now was not expected to drop the case entirely.
Parents, weary and impatient as one week of the strike stretched into a second, said they were deeply relieved that it was over. Within minutes of the announcement, some had already begun loading backpacks.
“I’m hopeful that parents and teachers and administrators can now focus on the kids’ learning,” said Maura Robbins, a parent of two children.
Ms. Robbins said she worried about lingering tensions in the schools, fearing that the “spirit of working together” might be irretrievably damaged. “I hope everyone can put their feelings about the strike aside and cooperate again,” she said.
Until the vote on Tuesday, the fate of the deal — and how long a strike might last — was entirely unknown. After a meeting of union delegates on Sunday ended with a vote to extend the strike and no clear resolution in sight, some indicated that they still had questions and qualms about the proposed contract.
All along, delegates were considering the particulars of the deal in a broader context in which union leaders accused Mr. Emanuel, who has pushed for longer school days and tougher teacher evaluations, of ultimately wishing to shut down numerous public schools and, in essence, to privatize the system.
Pressure mounted in recent days as union leaders grappled with a complicated equation: how to find agreement among hundreds of delegates with vastly different views and concerns, while balancing the risk of losing public support as the strike stretched on.
By Tuesday, there were signs that union leaders realized they needed to move quickly. The union issued a leaflet aimed at maintaining patience from Chicagoans, which read, in part, “We would like to express our profound gratitude for your support in our fight for quality public education and a fair contract.”
Outside the meeting on Tuesday, many delegates said that they simply wanted to return to their classes, and that the contract terms, while not everything they had hoped for, would have to suffice.
“I think this is the best contract that we could have gotten in this atmosphere,” said Barbara Relerford, a delegate. “I think the power of the union has been amplified all over this nation. And we miss our kids. We’re ready to go back.”
The tentative contract deal, a full copy of which had not yet been made public, was reached over the weekend after difficult, lengthy talks. It spans three years with an option for a fourth.
At a time when the school system says it faces a $1 billion budget deficit next year, the contract offers an average teacher more than 17 percent in raises over the full four years, including pay increases for higher levels of experience and additional degrees, school officials said. Currently, teachers here make $76,000 a year on average, according to the school system, though the union has said the number is lower.
Counting student test scores in teacher evaluations was a provision that concerned the union, but that process would be phased in gradually and include a way to appeal contested evaluations. By the third year of the contract, student scores would constitute 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, in keeping with state law.
In a system that had one of the shortest school days in the country, school would last seven hours for elementary-school students, as Mr. Emanuel had pushed for, instead of less than six. The district agreed to help make up for the extra time by hiring additional teachers from a pool of laid-off teachers. In addition, the schools would aim to hire laid-off teachers who were deemed proficient or excellent to fill at least half of any new job openings.
Even with the strike ending, though, some Chicagoans said that the issues would not fade away easily, and that the atmosphere felt changed and toxic. Others said they believed the strike and picket lines had been an important show of union force — a reminder of the power of labor and the notion that a new national agenda in education would not be pressed through without the notice of teachers.
“The key is that we are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in the schools need to be heard,” Ms. Lewis, the union president, said. “And I think that this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard. And I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
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