Cory Booker couldn't have summed up better his enigmatic role in Newark public schools than his response to a question about education at the U.S. Senate debate this week.
The Newark mayor looked into the camera and said: "Even though I have no formal authority over public education in Newark whatsoever . . ."
And then off he went on one of his favorite and most passionate topics: educational opportunity for all kids, with Newark helping to lead the way.
For a guy with no legal power over the schools, Booker has been a prominent force in Newark education reform, both for popular and unpopular reasons.
If nothing else, the mayor’s relationship to his public schools is indeed complicated. That bond is likely to come in for more scrutiny, the closer he gets to the special Senate election on Wednesday.
On the one hand, Booker is one of both the district's and charter schools’ biggest cheerleaders and fundraisers. He is credited for almost single-handedly attracting the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that has benefited both district and charter schools.
On the other, few would say that over the past seven years Booker has been actively involved in decision-making in the district, even when Gov. Chris Christie all but offered him the keys to the schools after the Zuckerberg gift -- even without the legal authority to do so.
Whether Booker should take credit for Newark’s progress or some responsibility for continued problems has been a big issue in the race against Republican candidate Steve Lonegan.
Lonegan is unabashedly critical of Booker on this score, pointing to struggling schools and a graduation rate that he pegged at less than 50 percent.
He was wrong on the district-wide count, which was in the high 60 percent range at last measure. But that’s little reason to celebrate, and in some high schools it is closer to 50 percent, according to state data.
“In Newark, one of the most expensive school districts in the United States of America, it has a drop out rate of over 50 percent,” Lonegan said at the Wednesday debate. “Seven years in a row, thousands of children will become part of poverty and crime without a high school degree.”
Going the half-full instead of half-empty route, Booker in the debate focused on what he called the positives in the city’s education system, especially the rise of charter schools. It’s a favorite cause for the mayor, a member of the founding board of a Newark charter school more than a decade ago and still one of the sector’s best fundraisers.
“Newark, New Jersey, has one of the highest performing charter school sectors in the country, because we brought together philanthropists from all over the country,” he said Wednesday.
That’s not to understate Booker’s role in the district schools as well. Few inside the district wanted to talk publicly yesterday, given the high stakes of the Senate election and a gubernatorial election right behind it.
But there was a consensus that Booker was integral in the selection of Cami Anderson as Christie’s choice for superintendent, going to bat for her in the selection process after she had worked with him as a policy director in one of his mayoral campaigns.
And the Zuckerberg gift was no doubt critical in the district’s landmark teachers contract, which includes the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for exemplary teachers.
By the accounting of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the Zuckerberg-funded organization, almost $50 million of its total $200 million planned endowment is committed to the contract.
None of those are necessarily popular decisions, by any means. Anderson still faces sometimes-hostile backlash to her reforms; the teachers contract isn’t an overwhelming hit with the union that signed it; and the Zuckerberg gift has plenty of critics.
A political ad by a PAC supporting Lonegan airing this week insisted that more of the Zuckerberg money went to consultants than to classrooms, with Booker’s blessing.
That's an arguable claim at best, given the sizable amount that went to the teachers contract. But it does reflect a continued cynicism -- in the district and outside of it -- over the high sums that have also gone to vendors for professional development and other support.
Nonetheless, others said that Booker at least helped set a new tone for education in the city as a whole.
“He brought an animated discussion about our schools, the future of education in the city, and the role of charters,” said Clement Price, a venerated Rutgers University history professor who once served on the school board and led the recent superintendent search. “He’s brought those issues to the fore, and those are all good things.”
“Has he fixed everything and been attentive enough to the rituals of the city and the district?” Price continued. “Maybe not, but he has drawn attention to the issues of public education.”