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Editorial: The strike is over: Now ratify the deal

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis prepares speak speak after meeting delegates ended strike Operating Engineers Hall 2260 Grove Street Chicago

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis prepares to speak speak after a meeting of delegates ended the strike, at Operating Engineers Hall, 2260 Grove Street, in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, September 18, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:15AM

Teachers and students should keep one key fact in mind as they return to school on Wednesday:

The new contract is an unequivocal win for students and for the thousands of top-flight teachers in Chicago.

It bears repeating again and again because while the strike is over, Chicago’s teachers still must ratify the deal. And they should, without hesitation. The union’s House of Delegates ended the strike Tuesday, but the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union still must weigh in.

The new contract is a win for all because, among other gains, it creates a high bar for hiring teachers. This sets the stage for major changes that we hope will improve teaching and learning.

As we said on Monday, the potential here is great, assuming that the Chicago school system can pull it off. Nothing a school does matters more than picking the right person to head each classroom.

Here’s how it will work: Only those teachers rated in the top two of four categories under a new, state-mandated evaluation will be eligible for teaching jobs; “developing” or “unsatisfactory” teachers are left out. Because the stakes are so high, the CTU rightly fought hard for a fair evaluation system.

The contract also makes clear, per state law, that layoffs will be decided first by performance, not strictly by seniority. That means the weakest tenured teachers will be shown the door first, a huge and overdue change. The only exception, and it’s a big one, is for new, non-tenured teachers. They will continue to be laid off before tenured teachers, except for those with unsatisfactory ratings.

A couple of crucial caveats must be closely watched: If there aren’t enough strong teachers for every job, Chicago may end up watering down its evaluation. The school system also must keep a tight lid on who’s eligible for a job. The new contract allows for hiring developing teachers if they meet yet-to-be-determined criteria, the union says.

“Yet to be determined.” We all need to keep an eye on that.

But the skeleton of a new system that pushes for excellence is coming to Chicago. That was worth fighting for.

We disagreed with the delegates’ decision Sunday to delay the vote to end the strike so teachers could study the contract. But we understood it. Teachers don’t trust the board of education, and history has shown them to be right.

But we refuse to give the union leaders a pass if they fail to sell this deal.

Teachers must be persuaded to give it the thumbs up. Given all the nasty name-calling and the sky-high expectations set by CTU President Karen Lewis, she owes it to her members and to Chicago as a whole to make sure this deal sticks.

She has so far refused to sell it, saying it’s up to the teachers to decide. She is committed to overseeing a democratic union.

But Lewis agreed to this contract, and as a leader, even of a democratic union, it’s her responsibility to tell teachers this is a fair contract and they should ratify it.

The contract doesn’t fix all that ails the school system. The shabby conditions in schools — a dismal student-to-social worker ratio, the need for libraries and air conditioning — aren’t remedied.

But the teachers penetrated the public consciousness with these very real concerns in a deep and, we hope, lasting way.

As teacher Lisa Levy told us after the vote Tuesday: “This is not the end of the fight.”

But, for the moment, it’s time for peace.

Lewis showed us she can roar and get thousands to follow her. Now it’s time for her to whisper that the fight is over, at least for now, and to bring her troops along.

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