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Political odd couple agrees on education

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John Avlon: GOP N.J. governor, Democrat Newark mayor united for school reform
  • Facebook founder donates to Mayor Cory Booker, Gov. Chris Christie's effort, he writes
  • Christie and Booker are constructive model of surprising cooperation, Avlon says
  • Fighting teachers union, he says, they support merit pay, charter schools, vouchers

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- Oprah had a question: "In this age of red states and blue states, with everyone being so partisan against everything, that fact that you could all come together -- you're a Republican and he's a Democrat -- did that ever come into it?"

"No," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "It's about the children."

They were seated on stage Friday on Oprah Winfrey's show next to Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker -- the aforementioned Democrat -- and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was announcing a $100 million challenge grant to support that city's aggressive effort to reform its struggling public schools.

The real news wasn't just the money; it was the surprising across-the-aisle partnership on education reform between two of the nation's brightest rising political stars.

In a time of poisonous party polarization, Christie and Booker are becoming a constructive model of cooperation.

Christie has quickly emerged as one of the most broadly popular Republicans in the nation: a no-nonsense chief executive, unafraid of taking on powerful special interests like the teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association. His talent for calling out biased questions and hecklers has made him an unlikely YouTube folk hero.

Now, he's one of the most in-demand campaigners for GOP candidates across the country, offering a blueprint for how to govern as a fiscal conservative who is able to connect with independents and centrist Democrats. Already, some are calling on the man who transitioned from U.S. attorney to Garden State governor less than a year ago to consider a run for president.

Booker was drawing "future president" buzz when Barack Obama was still a state senator.

A documentary, "Street Fight," was made about this suburban Rhodes Scholar-turned-inner-city councilman's first run for mayor of Newark. He ran unsuccessfully against the corrupt, and ultimately imprisoned, incumbent Sharpe James.

He has faced opposition from the local teachers' union because of his support of charter schools and school vouchers. Members of the Bloods gang plotted to assassinate him because of his tough stand on crime. But he was re-elected in a nonpartisan election in 2010 with 60 percent of the vote.

Booker has been an aggressive and independent reformer in office, using his celebrity to draw attention to this too-often-forgotten major American city.

In our hyper-partisan era, two high-profile executives operating in the same state would normally mean they would act like mortal enemies. But since Christie took office, Booker has stood alongside him on pivotal policy issues in the face of partisan complaints.

First, they agreed on Christie's proposal for a 2.5 percent cap on property taxes (New Jersey is among the most highly taxed state in the nation). But the urgent area of education reform is where their partnership promises to show the greatest results.

First, consider some sobering statistics: America rates 25th in math and 21st in science scores among industrialized nations. Children are in danger of being less literate than the generation that came before. And a child who doesn't finish high school is eight times more likely to go to jail.

"Either kids are getting stupider every year," says education innovator Geoffrey Canada, "or something is wrong in the education system." The answer is B.

This is a fight for our times, brilliantly captured in the acclaimed new documentary "Waiting for Superman," by the director of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." But now it's the institutionalized left that's getting its ox gored.

The problem with our education system isn't money. As President Obama said Monday in an interview with "The Today Show," "We can't spend our way out of it. I think that when you look at the statistics, the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades even as results have gone down. ... Money without reform will not fix the problem."

In Newark, per-pupil spending is a record $20,000 per student -- but students there were twice as likely to fail to meet the standards set by the No Child Left Behind law. Because of the chronic problems in Newark, the state has long run its local school system. Thanks to Christie and Booker's partnership, that's about to change.

Along with Zuckerberg's $100 million gift, the duo announced that Booker would be assuming control of the school system, appointing a chancellor in consultation with the governor, generally following the improvements implemented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg across the Hudson River in New York.

In addition, a nonunion curriculum panel will be formed to shake up the system and improve the quality of education.

Both Booker and Christie support reforms like merit pay for teachers; charter schools, which have increased under their watch; and school vouchers. Their mantra is accountability. They have been willing to shut failing schools and reward a more results-oriented, entrepreneurial approach to education. This, they argue, is more compassionate than sticking with the slogans of compassion that accompany the status quo.

Their foes are the teachers' unions, which have tried to block individual accountability measures and educational innovations in New Jersey and around the nation.

They have the shadow of former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty hanging over their efforts: After empowering D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to reform schools, the teachers union put more than $1 million into this month's closed partisan primary to defeat Fenty.

Already, in reaction to Christie's proposal of a one-year teacher salary freeze and 1.5 percent health benefits contribution to avoid layoffs, the teachers union has been treating Christie like Public Enemy No. 1 -- with the head of the Bergen County teachers union sending an e-mail to his members, jokingly praying for Christie's death.

Booker and Christie's fight for reform is an example of purposeful bipartisanship that is entirely absent from Washington these days. When Booker was criticized on the left for working with the Christie, he correctly diagnosed the problem: "We've come to the point where if you work with someone across the aisle on an issue you agree with, you're a turncoat. ... That's toxic politics. It's the same thing Republicans are doing in Washington with President Obama. I don't have time for that nonsense."

It does not matter that Zuckerberg announced his gift on the eve of the apparently unflattering Aaron Sorkin-penned tale of Facebook's creation, "The Social Network"; it is a selfless investment that will have a real return. And with greater accountability and flexibility for innovation, more philanthropists will step up to the plate and pledge to help improve our students.

Education reform is an area in which public-private partnerships will prove as necessary as overcoming partisan divides to achieve real and lasting results. Hyper-partisan politics stop us from solving our common problems. The cutting-edge Christie and Booker partnership offers a model of how our nation can move forward, stronger and smarter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.