Will Booker’s Track Record on Education Be a Problem for his 2020 Campaign?

His vision for improving education has included charter schools and merit pay for teachers — views that are out of fashion for many Democrats

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker spoke to reporters outside his home in Newark about running for president on February 1, 2019.
Sen. Cory Booker is running for president — and bringing a lengthy record on education with him.

The former mayor of Newark announced his plans Friday, joining a growing group of Democratic hopefuls. One way he stands out from that crowd: He’s spent much of his career promoting a specific vision for improving education that includes charter schools and merit pay for teachers — views that in recent years have gone out of fashion with many Democrats.

On Friday, Booker vowed to run “the boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is,” noting he’s previously been endorsed by New Jersey’s teachers unions.

But at a time when teachers across the country are pushing for higher salaries and against charter schools, Booker’s record on education is sure to draw a skeptical eye from unions and public school advocates. And his past work alongside Betsy DeVos may make its way into campaign attack ads from his Democratic opponents, even though he voted against her as U.S. education secretary.

Here’s what you should know about Booker’s education track record, including the dramatic overhaul of schools in Newark he oversaw as mayor.

A lot like Barack Obama’s vision…

Booker, who first ran for Newark mayor in 2002, gained prominence at a time when both Democrats and Republicans were endorsing what became known as “education reform”: a constellation of policies that included school choice, including through privately managed charter schools; accountability for low-performing schools; and ratings for teachers that weighed student test scores.

Booker was among the strongest local evangelists of the movement, which drew criticism from teachers unions and community groups who understood that its goals could be at odds with their own. He even became a leading figure for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that worked to advance the reform agenda among elected officials and successfully influenced President Barack Obama’s education platform.

Booker has championed policies that reward highly rated teachers and remove those with poor ratings.

And he’s been a vocal critic of teachers unions along the way, something that could be problematic as he tries to run a pro-teacher campaign.

“Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered,” Booker said in 2008, urging Democratic office holders to “have the political will to stand up against these phenomenally powerful interests.”

“I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters,” he said.

… and like the Betsy Devos vision too

Like every Senate Democrat (and two Republicans), Booker voted against President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education in 2017. But unlike his colleagues, he appeared to have a close connection with Betsy DeVos.

That connection stems from one issue where Booker has also gone further than most Democrats: school vouchers. In 2001, he spoke at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, praising private school vouchers, something most progressives opposed then and now.

Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
Booker served with DeVos on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice (now known as the American Federation for Children Growth Fund). He also spoke at gatherings of the American Federation for Children, an organization DeVos chaired, in 2012 and again in 2016.

“The mission of this organization is aligned with the mission of our nation,” he said in 2016.

The American Federation of Children has focused much of its efforts on promoting private-school voucher programs, which Booker has supported, arguing that poor children and children of color need ways to escape from struggling public schools.

Tougher test-based accountability for schools

Still, Booker voted against DeVos, whose nomination drew fierce opposition from teachers across the country. He said his vote was about DeVos’s record on issues outside of school choice.

As a senator, Booker has continued to support vouchers and tougher test-based accountability for schools. Along with Elizabeth Warren — now a Democratic primary rival — Booker led the charge to ratchet up pressure on low-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a move opposed by the National Education Association.

In 2015, Booker joined three other senators to sponsor the extension of the Washington, D.C. school voucher program. On January 24, those three senators were again pushing for reauthorization — but without Booker. It’s unclear whether that’s a sign of waning support. In an interview with CNN in 2017, Booker said his views on education “haven’t changed one iota.”

The clearest case study of Booker’s education philosophy can be found in the city where he engineered a massive — and massively controversial — overhaul of the city’s beleaguered school system.

Booker’s reforms sparked a backlash in Newark

As Newark’s mayor, he formed a bipartisan alliance with then-Gov. Chris Christie to reshape the district, the state’s largest and one of its most troubled. To bankroll their efforts, Booker secured a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a matching amount from other deep-pocketed donors eager to see Newark become a “proof point” for the education reform movement.

Then-Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker were allies in reshaping Newark's schools in 2010.
The changes that Booker helped bring came straight out of that playbook: school closures, more charter schools, the ouster of some teachers and principals deemed ineffective, and a new teachers contract that tied teachers’ pay to their performance.

Although the union agreed to the contract, a number of the changes triggered bitter resistance among teachers. Ras Baraka, a local principal, turned his opposition to the reforms into a winning bid for mayor and many residents first learned of the planned overhaul through a splashy announcement on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In the coming years, students would stage a sit-in protest at the board of education headquarters, and the firebrand superintendent charged with carrying out the changes, Cami Anderson, would be run out of town.

There’s no doubt the reforms were unpopular with many residents. Whether they improved outcomes for students has been the subject of debate.

Results: some good, some less encouraging

A recent study led by Harvard researchers found that the changes led to an initial decline in student growth on state tests. By 2016, students’ annual gains in English, but not math, were higher than comparable students across New Jersey, the researchers found. Students’ scores have continued to rise, and graduation rates leapt nearly 20 percentage points since the overhaul began. Meanwhile, the city’s large charter-school networks — including North Star Academy, whose board Booker once sat on — rank among the top-performing schools in the state.

Other indicators are less encouraging: About one in three students in Newark’s traditional schools were chronically absent last school year — about the same share as when the reforms began.

But whatever improvements the changes spurred have largely been overshadowed by the way they were enacted. Detailed in the book “The Prize” by journalist Dale Russakoff, the overhaul came to symbolize top-down reform imposed by ideological outsiders and highly paid consultants.

In recent years, Zuckerberg has reconsidered his approach to reform in Newark, saying he wants to “go in the opposite direction” by working more closely with community members and teachers unions.

He says he ‘wouldn’t change a thing’

Booker, by contrast, has shown no regrets. In a recent interview, he expressed frustration with the widespread perception that the Newark reforms went awry, calling it “one of the biggest disconnects between reality and perception that I’ve ever seen in my politics.”

During a briefing with Newark reporters in January 2018, Booker recalled how aides had warned that “forces that don’t even really care about schools” would “savage” his reputation if he tried to shake up the city’s school system. That prediction came true, Booker said, yet he still stands by the controversial reforms.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, pointing to students’ recent test-score gains. “It really is one of prouder efforts I’ve been a part of in my life.”