CHICAGO – Chicago students returned to school today after a teachers’ strike ended, thrilling parents who had to stay home from work to care for their kids, pay for alternative child care or leave them with friends and relatives for more than a week.
Representatives of the 29,000 striking Chicago public school teachers and support staff voted on Tuesday to suspend their strike and accept a compromise agreement on a new three-year contract with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Some 350,000 kindergarten, elementary and high school students return to classes after missing seven school days in the third-largest US school district after New York and Los Angeles.
It was the first time since 1987 that Chicago teachers had walked off the job and nearly everyone in the city seemed relieved that it was over.
“All our members are glad to back with their kids,” said Karen Lewis, the outspoken former high school chemistry teacher who heads the union. Lewis led the teachers out of the classroom over Emanuel’s demand for sweeping education reforms that the union believed were misguided.
Only a fraction of the students went to nearly 150 centres around Chicago set up to care for children during the strike. The union had warned that the city-run centres would be a “train wreck” with caregivers lacking proper credentials.
While there were no major problems, most parents opted to keep their children at home. Many kids passed the time by watching television, playing video games, doing crafts and chatting on social media.
“They’ve been around sleeping all day,” said parent Dawn McNamara of her daughter, a sophomore in high school, and her friends. “It seemed like it was going to take forever (to settle the strike),” McNamara said.
Teachers were all smiles as they left the vote to end the strike on Tuesday, with one overheard telling a colleague on her cell phone: “Tell our people we’re going back. We’re going to see our babies.”
Even the tough-talking mayor Emanuel choked up slightly at a press conference after the strike was called off. Emanuel said that he fought so hard for reforms because he had seen the blank stares of some children “whose vitality has been stripped from them, any sense of a promise or a future.”
“The only way I know to bridge that look in their eyes and the promise and opportunity that exists in the city of Chicago is in the classrooms of the schools,” Emanuel said.
While the strike ended, some of the issues that spawned it remain. Most Chicago public schools are struggling academically, the high school graduation rate lags the national average substantially and the school district is in dire financial straits.
Lewis said that the full membership of the union will vote in the next two weeks to formally ratify the agreement, which gives teachers an average 17.6 per cent pay rise over four years and creates a new teacher evaluation system based in part on their students’ standardized test results.
The teacher evaluation system was a key demand of Emanuel, along with a longer school day. But the union won partial guarantees of job security and fought off Emanuel’s attempt to link pay to merit.
Teachers said they fear now that the strike has ended, Emanuel will proceed to close dozens of schools to help pay for the cost of the agreement with teachers. (Reuters)