When Senator Warren released her position statement on public education a few weeks ago, school reform advocates across the political spectrum emitted a collective gasp. Having only recently lavished praise on Boston’s highly successful charter sector, she roundly criticized the very idea of a charter school and vowed to deprive them of federal support. In the words of Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, her stance “broke with the Obama Legacy” in a manner that “is not only out of touch with the priorities of Democratic voters, but will hinder opportunities for Black and Brown students.”
One need not look to abstract policy papers to appreciate the sharply different perspective of Senator Cory Booker. Forged in the fires of real-world leadership as mayor of Newark, Booker’s views on public education are both plain and consistent over time. Having worked with Booker for over a decade – as advisor, State Commissioner of Education, and Superintendent of Newark’s public schools – I can attest that there is no greater (or more courageous) advocate of equalizing opportunity through quality public schools. Where circumstances make effective public charter schools an appropriate response to chronic educational failure of the traditional system, he supported them. And he continues to support them even as others in the party find it politically expedient to tack away from a position that has enjoyed bipartisan support dating back to the Clinton Administration.
Booker has much to tout in his education record – so it is no wonder he’s standing by it. Success in district-wide school reform can never be attributed to any one reform, but rather to one hundred one percent solutions. The data, however, is incontrovertible that a leading contributor was Mayor Booker’s principled view that the district should be quality focused and governance neutral when it came to opening, closing, or restructuring schools. So long as a school was open to all, tuition free, accountable to a non-profit board, and ultimately responsible to a democratically elected governmental authority, he would support it if it could advance the educational opportunity of the city’s children.
As should be apparent to anyone who is not blinded by the heated, interest-group driven and polarizing messaging that appears to have taken Senator Warren hostage, that definition of a public school comfortably includes everything from district-run schools to magnets to public charter schools. If a charter school was failing, Booker pushed to close it. If it was succeeding, he supported expanding it – precisely the same perspective he applied to traditional public schools. The result: The array of quality public school options available to Newark’s families improved dramatically.
What Booker set in motion is undeniable:
• The high school graduation rose to just under 80%, an eye-popping 20 percentage-point gain. (As an independent audit found, precision is impossible since record keeping had been so bad that all that could be determined was that the prior number was less than 60%.)
• Three times as many African American students now attend schools that beat the state average, an especially noteworthy achievement given that New Jersey is consistently among the top-performing states in the nation.
• Newark was identified by a leading third party analyst, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, as having more “beat the odds” schools than any other city in the country.
• Proficiency levels in reading and math rose dramatically, especially compared to demographically comparable districts. Indeed, in 2017, on the challenging PARCC exam Newark’s disadvantaged students beat not only the New Jersey state average but the average in every other state that took the same exam – for example, Maryland, Illinois, and Colorado – and more than doubled proficiency levels in DC, a district that has justly received plaudits for its academic progress.
So why are some arguing that Booker’s views on public education generally and the role of public charter schools specifically have softened in the heat of the presidential campaign?
Booker’s phrasing may be more careful, but his position is unwavering. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette observed, “he is prepared to defend his record on school reform, rather than bow to political pressure.” And so he has, as evidenced by some recent statements on the subject, including at the September debate and in the New York Times.
Booker has often extended olive branches to traditional school advocates on the campaign trail, and critics are wrongly interpreting those as reversals. For example, Booker says that charters are not right for many communities, that they only serve a small percentage of public school students, and that he opposes any state charter school law that fails to hold schools accountable. In addition, Booker says his support for charters does not extend to “for profits,” a view shared by Democrats for Education Reform (and has virtually no practical relevance in New Jersey or most of the country where such schools are already not permitted). Lastly, he emphasizes (perhaps unduly) the importance of “local support” for charters. While that was a feature of the Newark experience, such support is by no means always present and shouldn’t be advanced as a gating issue for granting a charter. Even here, however, his views are measured, suggesting little more than local community support is a positive.
But these occasional nods in the direction of conventional Democratic politics hardly represent a renunciation of long-held principles. To the contrary, Booker has never wavered from his view that, in the right circumstances, charter schools can be an effective element of a comprehensive reform strategy.
There is no principle more central to the American project than that birth circumstances, whether demographic, economic or otherwise, should not determine life outcomes. In service of that ideal, every child deserves a free, high-quality, public education. In both word and deed, Cory Booker has consistently and unflinchingly demonstrated his commitment to that ideal.
Chris Cerf was New Jersey commissioner of education and was superintendent of the Newark, N.J. public schools.