Strike Over, Chicago Students Go Back To Classes

About 350,000 students had attended classes for less than a week before the strike began last Monday. Members of the union's House of Delegates voted Tuesday to suspend the strike after learning details of a tentative contract agreement.

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In Chicago, the strike that shut down the city's school system is over. Students go back to class today, after delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union voted overwhelmingly to suspend the strike in the country's third largest school district.

For now, the vote brings an end to a confrontation between the union and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called the agreement an honest compromise.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Jubilant Chicago Teachers Union delegates poured out of a Southside union hall, cheering and hugging after a two hour discussion about the tentative three year deal with the Chicago School Board.

TENNILLE EVANS: We're back. Kids are back. Teachers all back. Hey, it's all good.

(LAUGHTER)

CORLEY: About 800 union delegates represent the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago public schools, and delegate Tennille Evans called the deal with the school board fair.

EVANS: It wasn't just about the money. It was just about better services, job security, better environment for our students. So we're glad we got what we deserve and we're glad that we're back in school. We're ready to teach and ready to get it going.

CORLEY: Physical education teacher Andre Poellinetz was a high school senior during Chicago's last teachers' strike in 25 years ago, when teachers walked out for four weeks.

ANDRE POELLINETZ: And half of our football season was cancelled because of that, so I want to get back to the athletes.

(LAUGHTER)

CORLEY: The vote means today is a school day for those athletes and about 350,000 students in all who attended school for less than a week before the strike began.

So 16-year-old Kiara Bullocks, a high school junior, was excited about getting back to her classes.

KIARA BULLOCKS: It's a big relief because I've been waiting to go back to school.

CORLEY: And so had her 11-year-old sister, Kaloni.

KALONI BULLOCKS: It feels good.

CORLEY: Chicago's strike focused attention on the national debate over how to reform schools. Unions have pushed back against efforts to expand charter schools and to link teacher evaluations to test scores. This deal gives teachers pay raises, sets up a compromise teacher evaluation system, but no merit pay system that the mayor pushed for or reductions in class size - an issue the union wanted addressed.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis says now that the delegates have suspended the strike, the entire union membership will vote on the agreement in about two weeks.

KAREN LEWIS: The key is that we are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in the schools need to be heard. And I think that this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard and I think we are moving in the right direction.

CORLEY: The strike was the outgrowth of a contentious relationship between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel - President Obama's former chief of staff - and the teachers union.

The school board, faced with a big budget deficit, cancelled a negotiated pay raise for teachers. And this week the mayor had asked a court to order the teachers back to work when they decided Sunday to continue the walkout for two more days so they could review details of the three-year deal. Yesterday's vote makes the court hearing scheduled for today moot.

Here's Mayor Emanuel.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, DEMOCRAT, CHICAGO: This contract is a break with past practices and brings a fundamental change that benefits our children.

CORLEY: That change includes the mayor's push for a longer school day.

CHICAGO: Our elementary students will gain an extra hour and 15 minutes every day and two additional weeks every year. Our high school students will be in front of a great teacher for an extra 30 minutes each day and two additional weeks each year.

CORLEY: Emanuel also says there are provisions in the deal which will cut costs. The district's deficit, though, may result in the closing of a number of Chicago schools, and that is likely to be the next battle between the mayor and the city's teachers.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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