Chicago teachers vote to return to classroom

Associated Press Modified: September 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm •  Published: September 18, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) — Teachers agreed Tuesday to return to the classroom after more than a week on the picket lines in Chicago, ending a combative stalemate with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over evaluations and job security, two issues at the heart of efforts to reform the nation's public schools.

Union delegates voted overwhelmingly to suspend the strike after discussing a proposed contract settlement that had been on the table for days. Classes were to resume Wednesday.

Jubilant delegates poured out of a South Side union hall singing a song called "Solidarity Forever," honking horns and yelling, "We're going back." Most were eager to get to work and proud of a walkout that yielded results.

"I'm very excited. I miss my students. I'm relieved because I think this contract was better than what they offered," said America Olmedo, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual classes. "They tried to take everything away."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the settlement "an honest compromise" that "means a new day and a new direction for the Chicago public schools."

He said the talks achieved goals that had eluded the district for more than a decade, including an extension of the school day, which had been among the nation's shortest, and a new teacher evaluation system.

"In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more, but our kids got less. This time, our taxpayers are paying less, and our kids are getting more," the mayor said, referring to provisions in the deal that he says will cut costs.

Union leaders pointed to concessions by the city on how closely teacher evaluations would be tied to student test scores and to better opportunities for teachers to retain their jobs if schools are closed by budget cuts.

The walkout, the first in Chicago in 25 years, shut down the nation's third-largest school district just days after 350,000 students had returned from summer vacation. Tens of thousands of parents were forced to find alternatives for idle children, including many whose neighborhoods have been wracked by gang violence in recent months.

Union President Karen Lewis said the union's 700-plus delegates responded to a voice vote with an estimated 98 percent in favor of reopening the schools.

"We said that we couldn't solve all the problems of the world with one contract," Lewis said. "And it was time to end the strike."

Tuesday's vote was not on the contract offer itself, but on whether to continue the strike. The contract will now be submitted to a vote by the full membership of more than 25,000 teachers.

The walkout was the first for a major American city in at least six years. And it drew national attention because it posed a high-profile test for teachers unions, which have seen their political influence threatened by a growing reform movement. Unions have pushed back against efforts to expand charter schools, use private companies to help with failing schools and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Chicago teachers took pride in the display of union muscle. Said elementary teacher Shay Porter: "We ignited the labor movement in Chicago."

The strike carried political implications, too, raising the risk of a protracted labor battle in President Barack Obama's hometown at the height of the fall campaign, with a prominent Democratic mayor and Obama's former chief of staff squarely in the middle. Emanuel's forceful demands for reform have angered the teachers.