September 19, 2012 8:44:07 AM
CHICAGO -- Students prepared to return to class today after Chicago teachers voted to suspend their first strike in a quarter century, shutting 350,000 children out of school, disrupting the daily routines of thousands of families and making the city's schoolyards a flashpoint for union rights and public school reforms across the country.
Union delegates voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to suspend the walkout after discussing a proposed contract settlement with the nation's third largest school district. They said the contract wasn't perfect but included enough concessions -- including on new teacher evaluations, recall rights for laid-off teachers and classroom conditions -- to go back to work while they prepare to put it to a vote by more than 26,000 teachers and support staff in coming weeks.
"I miss the kids," said Symantha Lancaster, a delegate who works in career services, based at an elementary school. "I know we're fighting for a cause (but) I want to go back."
Parents say they are relieved the strike was over and are looking forward to finding teachers behind desks instead of on the picket lines outside schools. It meant the end of hassles trying to find alternative activities for their children, or dropping them at one of more than 140 schools the district kept open for several hours a day so they could be safe and eat breakfast and lunch.
"I am elated. I couldn't be happier," said Erica Weiss, who had to leave work in the middle of the day to pick up her 6-year-old daughter. "I have no one else to watch her. ... I can't even imagine the people who could have possibly even lost their jobs over having to stay home with their kids because they have no alternate care. It just put everyone in a pickle."
Wilonda Cannon, a single mother raising her four children in North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood beset by gang shootings and poverty, said she was relieved that her two youngest kids would be returning to class after spending the last seven school days with their grandfather.
She said she hoped the agreement was the beginning of something new for Chicago's public school system, which has long struggled with high drop-out rates and low test scores. It will take months if not years before parents and teachers will see whether the changes and contract provisions pay off for students.
"I don't know all the ins and outs (of the contract negotiations) ... but it does seem as though it's a step in the right direction," Cannon said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- who filed a lawsuit this week to try to force teachers back to work -- called the settlement "an honest compromise."
Union leaders pointed to concessions by the city on how closely teacher evaluations will be tied to student test scores and to better opportunities for teachers to retain their jobs if schools are closed by budget cuts.
"We said that we couldn't solve all the problems of the world with one contract, and it was time to end the strike," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.
With an average salary of $76,000, Chicago teachers are already among the highest-paid in the nation. The district's final proposal included an average 7 percent raise over three years, with additional raises for experience and education.
But the evaluations and job security measures stirred the most intense debate. The union said the evaluation system relied too heavily on test scores and did not take into account outside factors that affect student performance such as poverty, violence and homelessness.
The union also pushed to give laid-off teachers first dibs on open jobs anywhere in the district. The district said that could prevent principals from hiring the teachers they thought most appropriate for the position. The tentative settlement proposed giving laid-off teachers first shot at schools that absorbed their former students and filling half of district openings from a pool of laid-off teachers.
Susan Hickey, a school social worker, said she is eager to learn how the students she counsels fared over the summer.
"How are they? Are they OK?" she said. "I'm glad to be back for all kinds of reasons."
Associated Press writer Jason Keyser contributed to this story.