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Chicago teachers union votes to end its strike

Classes to restart today; vote on deal still needed

Chicago Teachers Union delegates celebrated after voting to end a strike. Union members must vote on the contract.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago Teachers Union delegates celebrated after voting to end a strike. Union members must vote on the contract.

CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union agreed Tuesday to end its strike in the nation’s third-largest school system, allowing 350,000 children to return to classes on Wednesday after seven days with no school.

The announcement came after 800 union delegates from schools across the city met for two hours behind closed doors to debate a proposed contract. The tentative deal, drafted by negotiators for the teachers and the city, hit snags earlier in the week as union delegates complained that they did not have sufficient time to digest it and, in some cases, did not like what it said. On Tuesday, the delegates voted by what two delegates described as an overwhelming majority to lift the strike, though the contract still requires ratification in a vote by the union’s 26,000 members.

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While a halt to the teachers’ strike, this city’s first in a quarter century, may end the immediate, local contract fight over job security, teacher evaluations, pay, and working conditions, the episode brought to the forefront larger questions about the philosophical direction of public education, a national agenda for change, and the potency of unions.

And although the political players in this fight were Chicagoans — some saw it as a highly personal standoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat in his first term as mayor, and Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president — the matter swept in national politics as well. Even as the schools were closed all over President Obama’s hometown, he did not publicly take sides in a showdown that pitted Emanuel, his former chief of staff, against labor, a bloc that Democrats depend on in election years like this one.

Parents, weary and impatient as one week without school stretched into a second, were relieved to learn that the strike was over. So were officials at the Chicago Public Schools and City Hall, which had been seeking a legal injunction to end the strike under a state law that bars teachers from striking over noneconomic issues. A court hearing scheduled for Wednesday was expected to be canceled.

It remained uncertain how students might make up for lost days. By Tuesday, there were signs that union leaders realized they needed to move quickly. The union issued a leaflet aimed at maintaining patience from Chicagoans.

“We would like to express our profound gratitude for your support in our fight for quality public education and a fair contract,’’ the leaflet said. It proceeded to list issues on which the union said it had gained ground during the strike, including limiting class size, getting textbooks on the first day of school (rather than weeks later), and increasing money for special-education teachers.

The tentative contract deal, a full copy of which had not yet been made public and which some delegates said they had yet to see late Tuesday, was reached over the weekend after lengthy talks. Though leaders from the union and from the schools have summarized the deal in sometimes conflicting terms, it appeared to offer some victories on both sides.

At a time when Chicago Public Schools officials say the system faces a $1 billion budget deficit next year, the deal offers teachers annual raises throughout a contract that would span three years with an option for a fourth. School officials said an average teacher would receive more than 17 percent in raises over the four years, including pay increases for experience and additional degrees. Currently, teachers here make $76,000 a year on average, according to the school system, though the union has said the figure is lower.

Student test scores would count in teacher evaluations, but that process would be phased in and include a way to appeal evaluations. By the third year of the contract, student scores would constitute 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, in keeping with state law.

In a system that had one of the shortest school days in the country, school would run longer: seven hours for elementary school students, as Emanuel had pushed for, instead of what had been less than six. The district agreed to help make up for the extra time by hiring additional teachers from a pool of laid-off teachers. In addition, under the proposed deal, the schools would aim to hire laid-off teachers to fill at least half of any new job openings.

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