2020 elections

Cory Booker Has a School Choice Problem

Cory Booker can embrace it, repudiate it, or ignore it, but he’ll have to come to grips with criticism of his record of support for charters and vouchers. Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Unless they are really obscure, virtually all the 2020 Democratic presidential wannabes have baggage they’d like to jettison, from Joe Biden’s crime-bill sponsorship to Elizabeth Warren’s Native American association to the various things Bernie Sanders said and did in many decades of being a proud socialist. In national terms, New Jersey senator Cory Booker is still a fresh face with an unclear identity. But for progressives and labor activists with long memories, he’s got some issues, too.

He might be able to explain away his reputation for being a reliable friend of Wall Street as a matter of virtual constituent services given the financial industry’s importance to New Jersey and to the city of Newark where he served as mayor for seven years. But a more concrete problem involves his long history of support for any and every kind of school choice, including not just the charter public schools the Clinton and Obama administrations supported, but the private-school vouchers that most Democrats stridently oppose. What makes this history a fresh concern is the fact that Booker was once a close ally of the DeVos family, the Michigan gazillionaires and education privatization champions who gave the world Donald Trump’s secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Kara Voght has the story:

In 1999, when he was still a city councilman, Booker worked with a conservative financier and a New Jersey Republican mayor to co-found Excellent Education for Everyone, a group dedicated to establishing a school voucher program in the Garden State. The following year, Dick DeVos—the Republican megadonor, school choice evangelist, and husband to the nation’s 11th education secretary—invited the 31-year-old Newark councilman up to his home base of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to speak in defense of a ballot measure that would lift the state’s ban on school voucher programs …

Booker’s association with the DeVos couple continued as he progressed from City Council to Newark’s mayoral seat in 2006 to the US Senate in 2013. In the mid-2000s, Booker and DeVos served together on the board of directors of Alliance for School Choice (AFC), the precursor to the American Federation for Children, which DeVos eventually chaired. Booker twice spoke at the AFC’s annual School Choice Policy Summit: once in 2012 as a mayor and again in 2016 as a senator.

Booker did begin to talk a lot less about vouchers and more about charter schools as mayor and as senator, and ultimately voted against DeVos’s confirmation as Education Secretary. But he has never entirely turned the page on this issue. And as Voght reports, he’s still defending his charter-centric educational policies in Newark:

Though he’s been relatively quiet on the subject of school choice as of late, he’s been pushing back against the characterization of his school choice project as a failure. As he’s prepared for a 2020 run, Booker has twice sat down with education website The 74 to defend his work in Newark, citing new researchthat attributes the educational gains of the city’s students to the closing of low-performing schools and the introduction of charters.

The teachers unions that managed in 2016 to push Hillary Clinton into a far less supportive posture on charter schools than her husband had embraced are watching Booker and the rest of the 2020 field carefully, as Brookings Institution education wonk Jon Valant observes:

“I think most of these candidates want to be understood and identified as progressive, and to do that right now is not to actively support charter schools,” Valant says.

Will Booker be among them?

“Maybe Sen. Booker will, maybe he won’t,” [American Federation of Teachers president] Weingarten explains. “He’ll have to answer a lot of questions.”

The growing militancy of teachers unions and their tendency to make uncontrolled growth of charter schools a primary issue means Booker won’t be able to dodge or finesse the issue much longer. And the way the wind is blowing in Democratic circles was amply illustrated by a recent column from former Chicago mayor — and former Clinton and Obama staffer — Rahm Emanuel, who regretted his long battles with teachers over his advocacy of “education reform,” which often came across as simply union-bashing.

Booker could choose to flatly repudiate his past positions on education policy and take this issue largely off the table for the 2020 primaries. Or he could, as other Democrats have long done, draw a bright line between private-school vouchers and public charter schools, and reject unaccountable charters that exist to make profits. He could even double down on his heresies as a token of independence from Democratic interest groups. But at some point soon he’ll have to make up his mind.

Cory Booker Has a School Choice Problem