Opinion: Mayor Emanuel is fighting just battle for future of Chicago schools

The most consequential political fight in the United States took place in Chicago last week.

The one-week teachers' strike continues for now, with a tentative contract yet to be approved by union members.

But this titanic struggle is as important as the fight against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.  

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It is time for all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to stand up and fight for children desperate for good schools.

The beachhead in this war is in Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) risked his political neck in a heroic fight to reform the nation’s third largest school system.

The political risk is great because of the money the teachers’ union has invested in Democratic politicians.

Add to the drama the fact that the nation is weeks from a presidential election. President Obama is another Democrat from Chicago. Emanuel is his former chief of staff.

Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne DuncanArne DuncanIn search of the surest Common Core exit route The opt-out movement and the coddling epidemic Senate approves Obama education chief MORE, used to be the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. The Chicago trio has risked alienating the unions by championing national school reform.

Republicans get a lot of money from big business, but they are not tied to the union dollar. As a result they have been aggressive advocates of school reform, charter schools and vouchers for private schools.

But Democrats, such as Mayor Emanuel, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and President Obama are now at the breaking point with bad schools and unions that support the status quo.

That is why this moment is so critical and will have national implications.

Will Democratic politicians be intimidated by this strike? 

The Chicago Teachers Union is making a show of its power to punish any big city politician, mostly Democrats, who decide to make a cause of reforming public schools that remain the shame of this American generation.

The strike also comes at a time when membership in labor unions is at an historic low.

The Chicago union’s leadership wants to show the leaders of other teachers’ unions around the nation that they can end this rush of Democratic politicians calling for reform by creating a crisis that makes parents lose sight of problem schools as they worry about what to do with their children during a long strike.

Since he took office in May 2011, Emanuel has tried his best to work with the union to change the system so that it actually educates its 414,000 students.

The Chicago Teachers Union has battled him every step of the way — fighting his efforts to increase the length of the school day and to expand charter schools.

In the first year of Emanuel’s leadership, 2012, the Chicago Public Schools had a record high graduation rate of 60 percent. Yes, 40 percent still don’t graduate, but given the circumstances, this is clearly improvement.

Under Emanuel, the average ACT standardized test score for Chicago high school students has risen to 17.6, the highest in a decade. That, too, is still not great. A student has to score 18 out of 36 on the ACT to be considered college ready.

The mayor has wanted the union to agree that teachers will be evaluated on the basis of their success in getting students to achieve. And he has sought longer school days.

In return he had offered a pay raise of 16 percent and to hire more teachers to cover the longer school days. The unions wanted 35 percent more – regardless of student performance.

While the negotiations over money are always important, the key point for the CTU — which more than anything led them to strike — is the dispute over teacher evaluations.

Emanuel wanted teacher evaluations to include the standardized test scores of their students. The union said the tests don’t take in to account issues of race, poverty and dysfunctional homes.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan have made stronger teacher evaluation a key part of their education reform efforts. Under their signature plan, called “Race to the Top,” states can win federal support for schools by improving teacher evaluations.

The president’s critics wanted him to call a press conference and angrily denounce the greed and intransigence of the CTU. Lord knows he would have been justified in doing it.

Critics see the president as trapped between his need for political support from the teachers’ unions and his clear desire to break apart the status quo of schools that fail young people.

In spite of this, Obama and Duncan have had a very good record on education reform.

They have encouraged expansion of charter schools nationwide. They have adopted objective, standardized testing in evaluating teacher performance. The Obama Department of Education has required states requesting waivers from No Child Left Behind to present detailed plans as to how they will improve test scores.

This is a national trend. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 24 states now require teacher evaluations to include student performance to some degree.

There is hardly any daylight between Mayor Emanuel’s position and that of the Obama administration. Both believe teacher evaluations should be linked to student performance.

The Chicago teachers’ strike has been a political battle for the future of schools, and for the children who need them most.

People of good will from all backgrounds and political persuasions need to get into this fight, on Mayor Emanuel’s side.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.