The first teachers strike in Chicago in 25 years has come to an end after union delegates prepared to accept a final deal offered by the cash-strapped city. Neither the city nor the union is coming across as the clear victor of the standoff as 350,000 school kids on Wednesday returned to class for the first time in more than a week.
"We said that we couldn't solve all the problems of the world with one contract," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said on Tuesday night. "And it was time to end the strike."
A framework of the final deal that union delegates are expected to accept this week has actually been on the table for days, meaning that the union was unable to get city leaders to budge much despite extending the strike into a second week. (The final contract is still being written.)
But in that framework, Chicago city and school district leaders did concede several key benefits to teachers, including setting up a system where laid-off teachers are first in line to be rehired citywide, one of the union's key job security concerns. Though Mayor Rahm Emanuel was able to wring out a longer school day from the teachers, it was still shorter than he'd wanted. The day before the strike began, Emanuel was forced to scrap his plan for a merit pay system that would reward teachers who lifted their students' standardized test scores.
Teachers, meanwhile, gave up their accumulated sick days and agreed to join a wellness program to keep down their health-care costs. They also gave up on their request for a 30 percent raise over four years, instead accepting a bit more than half that from the city. And they were forced to accept that their students' test scores will be included in their evaluations, a measure that is mandated by state law, though the union fended off Emanuel's plan to have the scores count for even more of a teacher's job evaluation than is required by the state.
Union supporters said the strike was a way of showing Chicago and the nation that teachers can still flex their muscles as a union, even in a changing education landscape where reformers are opening up independent charter schools mostly staffed with nonunion teachers.
"Our members are engaged, motivated and unified in our quest for quality schools like never before," said union organizer Jackson Potter. "[The strike] altered the consciousness of teachers and how they see themselves in relation to their colleagues."
Education historian Diane Ravitch writes on her blog that the teachers "won" the strike because they showed their displeasure with a recent wave of education reform initiatives that favor opening up charter schools, and punishing and rewarding teachers based on their students' scores on standardized tests. "The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful," Ravitch writes. "Regardless of the terms of the contract, the teachers won."
Still, Emanuel is likely walking away with a longer school day, a totally revamped teacher evaluation process, and a process by which principals are allowed to decide who to hire in their schools—all of which will transform how the district is run.
"This settlement is an honest compromise. It means returning our schools to their primary purpose: the education of our children," Emanuel said on Tuesday night, according to the Chicago Tribune. "In this contract, we gave our children a seat at the table. In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more, but our kids got less. This time, our taxpayers are paying less, and our kids are getting more."
Amy Wilkins, vice president at the proreform Education Trust advocacy group, suggested that the 350,000 Chicago students, most of them from low-income families, are the real losers of the walk-out, even though she thinks the reforms will help them. "We still think that kids in Chicago lost," Wilkins said. "In the long run certainly they will gain from this agreement, but the days lost is upsetting to us."