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On the honor roll -- Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel fight for better teachers and schools

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Fox News Political Analyst Juan Williams (FNC)

What do Republican Chris Christie and Democrat Rahm Emanuel have in common? Yes, they are both tough guys -- hard men who never back away from a political fight and happily curse out their critics.

But I’m not talking about that.

I am talking about the surprising brotherhood forming between that these two political brawlers – one on the right and one on the left – as they take on bad schools and the teachers’ unions that defend bad schools.

Fighting the unions and the money they pump into American politics – usually to help Democrats who in turn give them contracts that include protection for bad teachers - has long been a complaint from Republicans. 

Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, in his bitter fight to take away collective bargaining rights from teachers in his state, represents the full blast of Republican anger at unions and their cozy relationship with Democrats.

But Gov. Christie is not Gov. Walker and New Jersey is not Wisconsin. 

Gov. Christie is a northeastern moderate Republican. In the past that brand of Republican did not risk an all-out fight with a deep-pocketed foe such as teachers’ unions.

The same was true of big city Democratic mayors such as the former Obama White House Chief of Staff, and Chicago Mayor Emanuel. Urban mayors counted on the teachers’ union for money and organized support. So they turned a blind eye to failed schools.

But as Bob Dylan once sang – ‘The times, they are a changing.’

In the Garden State, Governor Christie is pressing to end a ludicrous system where teachers get lifetime tenure after only three years on the job. And he is getting help from a surprising number of his political opposition in the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature.

In Chicago, Emanuel has become an outright champion of charter schools and got the union to back down from their opposition to longer school days and a longer school year.

“Let’s replace despair with hope in every classroom in New Jersey” the governor declared during his state of the state address last week in Trenton. “Basic human decency and simple common sense say it is time for a different and better approach. The tools to give our children and their parents who are confronted with failing schools the chance for a better outcome are before you.”

Christie favors a merit-based tenure system where tenure is based upon teacher performance and a rigorous review process. And he supports the expansion of charter schools.

That last goal is one of the main tenets of last week’s National School Choice Week, a growing effort which rallied support coast-to-coast at meetings of school reformers.

Gov. Christie is winning support from Democrats by pointing out that his reforms are consistent with the agenda advocated by President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.

In his state of the state address, Gov. Cuomo vowed to become the “lobbyist for the students” and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.”

Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Mayor Emanuel is also finding that the Chicago teacher’s unions are the primary impediment to his efforts to promote school choice. Using angry street protests and legal intimidation tactics, the unions have tried to block Emanuel at every step.

Emanuel drew heavy fire from the unions for a proposal to lengthen the school day for Chicago’s K-12 students. Longer school hours are a distinctive feature of charter schools that have been proven to enhance student performance.

Despite spending 5 billion dollars on education, Chicago schools only have a 56% graduation rate and Emanuel wants to expand charter schools. Test scores from Chicago students are stagnant or in decline while school teacher’s salaries continue to rise.

Like New Jersey and 39 other states, Illinois state law allows for charter schools like the successful KIPP (Knowledge in Power Program) system model.

I recently interviewed Mayor Emanuel for Kyle Olson’s terrific new documentary about the fight for education reform in Chicago, “A Tale of Two Missions.” 

“Two missions” provides a stark contrast of two education models in Chicago. One mission is represented by a selfish teachers union that is obsessed with the mechanics of contract negotiations. 

On the other, you have impressive charter schools like the Noble School who are focused on teaching their young people, preparing them to graduate and attend a four-year college. Nobel has a 98 percent graduation rate while the rest of Chicago’s union-controlled public schools are losing about a third of their students as drop-outs.

“I think the system was never designed to benefit the kids.” Emanuel told me in an interview for the documentary. “We know what we need to do and as adults, we are failing the kids. We are committed to four more new charters so we’re are giving parents a choice all the time and that is a commitment I’m going to make to give parents that choice.”

Over the past three decades, education policy-making has shifted heavily to state and local governments. This is the right approach because parents and communities know how to raise and educate their children better than bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

However, the consequence of this shift is that state and city teachers unions have disproportionate power over the system. It will require brave, reform-minded public officials like Christie and Emanuel to disrupt the status quo and do what needs to be done to reform education.

Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which was released in July. 

Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities. Additionally, he serves as FNC's political analyst, a regular panelist on "Fox News Sunday" and "Special Report with Bret Baier" and is a regular substitute host for "The O'Reilly Factor." He joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1997 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Juan Williams

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