As a young councilman in Newark, Cory Booker listened to parents describe how they broke the law by claiming they lived somewhere other than the city to get their kids into good schools. In 2008, then-Mayor Booker, speaking to a Manhattan Institute audience, described these lawbreakers as “heroic parents,” desperate to escape the corruption and failure of the Newark system. Listening to them, Booker decided that he could no longer wait for reform in Newark. Instead, he began championing school choice, even affiliating with a prominent Republican businessman in New Jersey, Peter Denton, to create a political movement for charter schools and vouchers. “Wealthy people seem to have that choice,” Booker said. “We say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.”
As mayor of Newark, Booker didn’t have direct control over city schools, but he remained a relentless advocate for choice. During his tenure, the city closed numerous failing public schools and replaced them with charters. Today, about a third of Newark’s 50,000 students are in charters, and for the first time in decades Newark schools are starting to work on behalf of children, instead of adults.
One would think that Booker, now a senator seeking the White House, would tout that accomplishment in his presidential campaign. But the Democratic Party’s dynamics have profoundly changed, making support for school choice a liability. Booker’s own campaign agenda makes little mention of vouchers and charters, and he leaves it to others to describe Newark’s successes. His omission suggests the erosion of the coalition between conservatives and liberals tired of failing schools, which originally helped propel school-choice reform.
When Booker arrived on the political scene in Newark, the city’s school system had been on a downward trajectory since the 1970s, a corrupt patronage mill where one board of education member even pled guilty to selling teaching jobs. A state investigation of the system declared that “Almost all senior people have spent their entire careers in the Newark district. The fresh winds of new minds are not permitted to influence the course of education.” In 1995, a judge ordered the state to seize the system. But Trenton’s prescription for change was to pour in state funds, without trying to fix the city’s political culture or incentives. Within a decade, Newark schools were spending $17,000 per pupil, double the national average at the time—and still failing.
Early into his city council tenure, Booker determined that there had to be a better way. Though he opposed school choice when he took office in 1998, three years later he declared, “my thinking on education has undergone a polar change.” He touted a new organization dedicated to bringing charter schools and vouchers to New Jersey. “I can’t wait five years for us to reform the [Newark] school system,” he said. “People do not understand the desperation of my community.” He rode those sentiments to election as Newark’s mayor in 2006.
Even so, the state remained in control of the system, and Trenton’s Democrats refused to consider school choice. A frustrated Mayor Booker complained, “I have stopped going to lotteries for admission to charter schools because I was so saddened to see parents who have run out of options for their children.” It was only after Republican Chris Christie won election in 2009 that serious change arrived. Christie selected Cami Anderson, a superintendent of alternative schools for troubled kids in New York City, to run Newark’s schools. A former education advisor to Booker, Anderson shook up the system, firing principals, cutting administrative staff, and closing failing schools and replacing them with charters. She introduced a form of citywide choice, letting families rank schools by their preference; she instituted merit pay increases for teachers, getting extra money for the best of them.
The reforms made the combative Anderson unpopular within the education system, and when Booker left Newark for Washington, former high school principal Ras Baraka won the mayoralty, on pledges to roll back the reforms. While Christie agreed to fire Anderson, he installed his own former education secretary, Chris Cerf, as Newark’s schools chief, hoping to ensure that Newark’s most crucial reforms stayed in place.
Years after Booker left, the results he so doggedly sought have begun to materialize. Newark’s students now score in the 80th percentile on the state’s standardized tests when compared with similar districts; previously, they had ranged around the 40th percentile. High school graduation rates have risen from 61 percent to 77 percent.
But much has changed in the Democratic Party, meaning that Booker’s past in education policy is better left unexplored. Now endorsed by teachers’ unions, he promises, “the boldest pro public-school teacher campaign there is” in his presidential campaign. Though Booker says that his education-reform ideas haven’t changed “one iota,” he spends little time touting school choice, apparently unwilling to be seen in the same camp as President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Booker’s record on education reform sets him apart from many of the Democratic presidential wannabes. Bernie Sanders recently called for a moratorium on federal funding for charters. Elizabeth Warren, in turn, opposed lifting the charter school cap in Boston. By contrast, when Booker first supported charters, he enjoyed prominent company among Democrats, including Joe Lieberman, the party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee. Barack Obama also supported charters, and as president appointed an advocate, Arne Duncan, as education secretary.
It’s especially telling that as the Democrats move left and embrace progressivism, they are distancing themselves from a demonstrably effective policy like school choice. But modern progressivism values centralization and concentrating resources in the hands of government more than anything else. A bottom-up success story like school choice—which puts parents in charge, punishes failure, and rewards success—represents a threat, no matter its effectiveness in providing millions of poor kids with better schools.
Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images