Chicago teachers, students head back to school as strike ends

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After a stand-off in the third-largest school district in the nation that had the Chicago Teachers Union in deep debate with Chicago Public Schools officials, the strike has ended. Union delegates voted Tuesday to suspend the nine-day strike, sending 26,000 teachers and 350,000 children back to school Wednesday.

“I have 34 little ones that I can’t wait to see tomorrow,” said Alicia Schoenbeck, a union delegate and teacher at Mitchell Elementary School, after voting to suspend the strike Tuesday.

CTU President Karen Lewis spoke with excitement after 800 union delegates voted what she described as 98 percent to 2 percent to suspend the strike. “I am so thrilled that people are going back,” Lewis said. “Everybody is looking forward to seeing their kids tomorrow.”

On Sept. 10, the first CTU strike in 25 years gained national attention, but although it happened in President Barack Obama’s hometown, he stayed silent, even as it placed former White House Chief of Staff turned Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel against labor unions, a large part of the Democratic vote this election year.

“The basic consensus is that we re-ignited the labor movement in Chicago,” said Shay Porter, a teacher at Hendricks Academy and voting delegate. He explains that, “What we have done, sending a message to the nation…is re-ignite the fight for labor in the United States of America.”

Parents grew increasingly impatient and weary as they struggled to find childcare during the day for their kids, not knowing how long the strike would last. Candace Johnson has an 8-year-old son at Graeme Stewart Elementary School on Chicago’s North Side. “The anticipation of getting the answer of whether the schools are going to be back in session,” Johnson said, has been the worse part of the CTU strike for her.

Calling the strike’s end an “honest compromise,” Emanuel told reporters Tuesday that “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,” according to the New York Times.

The road to end the strike took many twists and turns. Sunday, the CTU decided not to suspend the strike, saying that delegates needed more time to go over the tentative agreement presented by CPS last week. Emanuel issued a statement then, saying,  “I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union.” He maintained his viewpoint that the strike was a “strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children.” At the time the tentative agreement was presented, both CPS and CTU officials were surprisingly optimistic about coming to a consensus soon, but it took four more days for the CTU to call off the standoff.

Thousands of teachers, parents, students and supporters who came from Wisconsin rallied in Union Park near Chicago’s West Side Saturday as a reminder that the deal was not signed yet and the strike would go on. High school student Angela Casa told the crowd in a sea of red shirts, “I am willing to stand by my teachers’ side for as long as it takes, because through this whole journey, they are keeping their heads up for us.”

Emanuel and other City Hall and Chicago Public School officials on Monday attempted to file an injunction to end the strike and send students back to school. He claimed that teachers violated a law barring them to strike over non-financial issues. The presiding judge chose to hold off on the injunction and have a court hearing Wednesday, however, the hearing will be canceled and the city said it will withdraw its request.

Top issues on the table during the strike have revolved around salaries, benefits, job security and teacher evaluations, the latter being the most controversial topic. While Emanuel insists that teachers should be rated by students’ performance, including on standardized tests –-a hot debate in the education reform discussion now – the union has been adamantly opposed to the proposed evaluation system, which was 45 percent based on student standardized test scores and student survey under the board’s original position.

“For the first time, teachers will have a meaningful evaluation system…Our evaluation system has not changed in 40 years while our students and the world they will live in and will work in has,” Emanuel said.

The proposed contract gives teachers an average 17.6 percent pay increase over 4 years. According to CPS, teachers in the system make an average of about $76,000 annually.