Chicago Teachers Union leaders voted on Tuesday to suspend a strike that closed the nation's third-largest school district for more than a week, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on how to reform failing urban schools.
It was likely that students would return to school on Wednesday after some 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools voted to end the strike after more than two hours debate.
"We are going back. All of our teachers are happy to be going back," said Jay Rehak, an English teacher at Whitney Young High School as he departed the closed meeting.
The delegates ended the strike on their second attempt, having decided on Sunday to continue the walkout for two days so they could review details of the proposed contract.
Union President Karen Lewis led the walkout on Sept. 10, the first in 25 years, to protest Emanuel's demand for sweeping education reforms aimed at improving Chicago's struggling inner-city schools. Some 350,000 public school students were out of school for a seventh day on Tuesday in the largest U.S. labor dispute in a year.
Emanuel tried to get a court order ending the strike on Monday, angering the union. It was not clear if a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday on Emanuel's request would go ahead.
The strike has focused attention on a national debate over how to improve failing schools. Emanuel, backed by a powerful reform movement, believes poorly performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff or converted to "charter" schools that often are non-union and run by private groups.
Teachers want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80 percent of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.
President Barack Obama was silent about the nasty dispute in his home city between Emanuel, who formerly was his top White House aide, and a major national union that supports him.
The strike fed concern that the rift could damage union support for Obama and Democrats in the run-up to the Nov. 6 presidential and congressional elections. Teacher rallies have drawn strong support from other unions in the city and from unions in neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana.
Parents have scrambled to find care for children during the strike but opinion polls showed most parents supported the union initially.
Some delegates had said before the meeting on Tuesday that they did not want to risk losing the support of parents by continuing the strike.
The contract that union delegates debated includes numerous compromises from Emanuel, including a key demand that teacher evaluations be based on results of standardized tests of student reading, math and science. Test results will be taken into consideration but not as much as Emanuel originally wanted.
Many Chicago public school students perform poorly on the tests. The union distrusts Emanuel, fearing he will use the results to close scores of schools with poor academic records once the strike is called off, leading to mass teacher layoffs.
"They are extraordinarily concerned about it," Lewis said on Sunday of rumors that Emanuel may close more than 100 schools. "It undergirds just about everything they talked about."
The proposed deal calls for an average 17.6 percent raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements. Chicago teachers make an average of about $76,000 annually, according to the school district.