Chicago, Illinois – Chicago Public School teachers and students will return to school on Friday after educators reached a contract deal with the United States‘s third-largest school district, ending a strike that began on October 17 and cancelled 11 days of school, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday.
The deal brings an end to the longest strike since 1987, when teachers refused to work for 19 days.
“The teachers will be back in class; the students will be back in class tomorrow,” Lightfoot said at City Hall Thursday after a two-hour meeting with Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey.
The CTU reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday, but refused to end the strike until Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to make up for the 11 school days lost to the strike. Lightfoot compromised on Thursday, agreeing to give five makeup days at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The CTU must still hold a vote with rank-and-file members to fully approve of the deal, which is expected to pass.
“In the interests of our students and our parents who have been suffering, it was important to me to make sure that we got our kids back in class,” Lightfoot said. “Enough is enough. And so in the spirit of compromise, we agreed. It was a hard-fought discussion. It took us a long time to get there, but I think this is the right thing.”
After months of negotiations, CPS agreed to many of CTU’s demands. The two sides agreed on a five-year contract in which teachers be given a 16-percent pay rise over the life of the agreement. Teachers will receive a three-percent rise over the first three years of the contract and a 3.5-percent rise for the following two years.
The contract also includes concessions over one of CTU’s greatest sticking points – trauma care and more social workers for students. The city’s final deal before the strike offered two million dollars to hire more social workers and nurses. The CTU rejected this offer, calling it “insulting” and saying that figure would only be enough to hire two teachers and four social workers, nurses and case managers over four years.
This week’s deal includes funding for a social worker and nurse on site in every school each day, a significant victory for the CTU. Many schools currently do not have any permanent social workers or nurses on staff, with health workers travelling to schools one day a week to address student health issues. Under the agreement, the city will hire hundreds of additional social workers and nurses, and will be given resources to assign a social worker and case manager to every school.
CPS said they will invest $35 million each year towards reducing class sizes, a figure nearly six times greater than Chicago’s initial six-million-dollar offer. CTU had made class sizes central to their decision to strike, as some teachers taught upward of 40 students in each classroom. This week’s deal will prioritise reducing class sizes at schools with “the most vulnerable students”, the union said in a statement.
“Today’s agreement will move us one step closer to smaller, enforceable class sizes, equitable pay for educators and paraprofessionals, and more support for our English Language and special education students,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates in a CTU statement.
However, those class sizes are still higher than many union members wanted to see. The new contract sets class sizes at 28 students for kindergarten through third-grade classes; 31 students for fourth through eighth-grade classes; and 31 students for high school students through grade 12, according to excerpts of a draft of the contract, obtained by Al Jazeera.
“I am slightly disappointed in class-size language,” one special education teacher and CTU member who wished to remain anonymous said. “Though there is more money allocated now, the class caps are still high.”
The union also wanted a three-year deal with the city, eventually compromising to a five-year contract with CPS. CTU also dropped their demand for an additional 30-minute preparation period.
Although Lightfoot said she offered to make a joint announcement on reaching a deal, CTU President Jesse Sharkey refused, an indication of tensions that remain between the two groups.
“We feel like we achieved a lot of things,” Sharkey said outside City Hall. “There are some things we didn’t achieve, but it’s not a day for photo opps and victory laps …They don’t need to see me smiling with the mayor when in fact what they need to see is we have a tentative agreement, we have a return to work agreement.”
Many teachers, however, are eager to get back to work and feel the changes will be positive ones for students across the city.
“I think we won big in areas of special education, clinicians, pre-kindergarten and pay, for the most part,” the CTU member said. “I view it as a huge win for our students, especially our neediest. Overall, I feel our kids won big.”