Chicago Teachers Quell Unrest, Take Heat Off Obama

Chicago teachers ended the city’s first school strike in 25 years, after union delegates quelled an outbreak of labor unrest in President Barack Obama’s hometown with seven weeks to go before the presidential election.

Delegates, who refused to suspend their walkout two days earlier, voted to reverse themselves yesterday, sending 350,000 students back to class.

“It was really the best we were going to get,” John Collins, a delegate who teaches physical education at Brunson Elementary School, said in an interview. “If we would have stayed out, I don’t think there was anything left we would have gained.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the settlement “an honest compromise” in remarks at Walter Payton College Prep, one of the system’s premier selective-enrollment schools.

“It means a new day and a new direction for the Chicago Public Schools,” he said. “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 contract carries an annual price tag of about $74 million, for a total of $295 million over four years, according to a statement released during the weekend by the Chicago Board of Education. The previous four-year contract cost $129 million a year. Even before the new accord, the district faced a 2013 deficit of $1 billion.

The vote to end the walkout was about “98 to 2 percent,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

‘Time to End’

“We said it was time, that we couldn’t solve all the problems of the world in one contract, and it was time to end the strike,” Lewis said of the 30,000-member union. Asked what message she had for the mayor, Lewis said, “I hope he agrees to this in good faith.”

The strike in the third-largest U.S. school system, which began Sept. 10, was the most public opposition to Emanuel since Obama’s former chief of staff took office 16 months ago. He had pledged to restructure the city’s operations, with lowering labor costs central to that goal.

Ending the walkout also removed a political hazard for Obama, who is counting on the support of organized labor while trying to appeal to independent voters who tend to favor some of the education policies at the heart of the conflict.

The strike had put Obama between the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed his re-election in February, and Emanuel, who as mayor oversees the school district. Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the former chief executive officer of Chicago’s schools. The president has used federal funds to advocate tying teachers’ evaluations to student performance, measures opposed by the union.

Longer Day

The teachers had been negotiating with the mayor since November over his efforts to lengthen the school day and year, as well as the board’s decision to cancel a 4 percent pay increase. In the last Chicago teachers strike, in 1987, union members walked out for four weeks.

Rank-and-file members of the union will vote on whether to ratify the contract “in a couple of weeks,” Lewis said. The delegates’ decision made moot a court hearing set for today to consider the board of education’s request that a judge force teachers back to work.

The union cited the city’s court filing as an example of Emanuel making it more difficult to reach an agreement, calling it “a vindictive act instigated by the mayor.”

Several delegates said the union leaders changed their mind after overcoming what one called “systemic distrust.”

Blind Faith

“We’ve gone into blind faith contracts before and we have literally gotten burned,” said Valerie Morris, 51, a special-education teacher at McKay Elementary School. “My head and my heart said it was time to come back.”

Both sides sought to rally support even as the delegates gathered to vote. Backers of Emanuel and the school board aired television ads that included excerpts from local newspapers applauding the contract’s longer school day and more control for principals over teacher hiring.

Supporters of the union released an ad lauding “their fight for students and parents.” Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of community and labor organizations, held several events where parents and students expressed their support for the teachers.

The union delegates declined to suspend the strike in a weekend vote though Lewis had said contract language would “assuage” their concerns about the teacher-evaluation process.

Evaluating Teachers

Teacher evaluations have been central to delegate deliberations because the district’s deficit is expected to result in the eventual closing of scores of schools. That will be unavoidable, regardless of the new contract’s provisions, said Paul Vallas, the Chicago schools chief executive officer from 1995 to 2001 who now runs Bridgeport, Connecticut, schools.

“This is a district that has exhausted its reserves,” he said in an interview last week. “The settlement itself is going to create pressure to cut even more, ultimately impacting more teachers, impacting more schools. It’s inevitable. It’s like a death spiral.”

School officials said the contract is for three years with an option for a fourth. They said “student growth” will account for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the first two years of the pact, and 30 percent in the third. A new state law requires the 30 percent benchmark.

A “student survey will be piloted” in the contract’s second year and would contribute to 10 percent of the teacher evaluation, according to the school system. The contract would provide a pay increase of more than 16 percent over four years.

Emanuel previously extended Chicago’s school day to 7 hours from 5 hours and 45 minutes at elementary schools, and to 7 1/2 hours from 7 hours at most high schools. The school year was lengthened to 180 days, from 170, which had been one of the shortest in the U.S.

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