Cory Booker’s educational successes do not play well in the primaries

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ON SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010 the Oprah Winfrey show hosted the unlikely trio of Cory Booker, who was then the Democratic mayor of Newark, Chris Christie, who was then the Republican governor of New Jersey, and a skittish-looking Mark Zuckerberg. They were there to announce an eye-popping $100m donation from the Facebook founder to help turn around Newark’s beleaguered schools. Mr Booker promised it would be a “bold new paradigm for educational excellence in the country” and helped fundraise another $100m in matching donations.

Now that Mr Booker is a New Jersey senator running for president in a crowded Democratic primary, he seldom brings up the Zuckerberg donation. That is not because the schools have failed to improve. They have done so significantly, though not to the degree envisioned by Mr Booker, who exclaimed that “you could flip a whole city!” Instead, it is that the ingredients of Newark’s education turnaround—the closing of bad schools, renegotiating teacher contracts to include merit pay, and significantly expanding high-performing charter networks—are anathema to the Democratic primary voting base.

Outside Newark, the public perception of the school reforms remain widely negative. Much of that is due to Dale Russakoff, a journalist, who wrote an influential and stinging portrayal of the efforts in her book, “The Prize”. Cami Anderson, the hard-charging superintendent appointed to oversee the plan, was vilified, and then resigned after Mr Booker decamped from Newark to Washington in 2013. Ras Baraka, a former high-school principal who is the current mayor, won election after making the contest a referendum over Ms Anderson’s popularity.

A review of the recent evidence suggests this pessimism is misplaced. For district schools, the high-school graduation rate has climbed to 76%, up from 61% in 2011. A study done by researchers at Harvard found an initial drop-off in test scores, and then, after the reforms set in, a big improvement in English, but not maths tests. Two-thirds of the growth was attributable to changes in the composition of schools—the closing down of failing traditional public schools and expansion of high-performing charters. Today, 31% of black students attend schools that beat the state average, compared with 10% in 2011. All this, even though Newark remains profoundly poor. Nearly 40% of the children live with families making less than the federal poverty line (currently $21,300 for a family of three); the vast majority, 79%, of schoolchildren are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

If Mr Booker believes deeply in anything, it is school choice. In 1998, when he was still a little-known city councillor, he founded Excellent Education for Everyone, which advocates for charter schools and voucher programmes. He sat on the board of Alliance for School Choice, a national organisation, alongside Betsy DeVos, who would become education secretary under President Donald Trump.

School choice has always scrambled the usual left-right divide in American politics. Mr Booker’s belief in it differs strongly from Ms DeVos’s. As a senator he voted against her confirmation. While those on the right see parental choice as a good in itself—and as a way to expand religious education—progressive types favour charter schools as a path to opportunity for poor black and Hispanic children whom urban school systems have failed for decades. “What do middle-class people do? They don’t wait for the district to fix itself. If [school choice] is good enough for middle-class people, then poor people should be able to as well,” says Shavar Jeffries, a civil-rights attorney who runs Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group.

Ms Anderson, the former superintendent who now runs a school-discipline reform initiative, feels vindicated. “I feel the results speak for themselves,” she says. “The fact that the establishment has been quiet is because it’s working.” The rhetoric from Mr Baraka, the mayor who pushed her out, has changed from outright hostility to comfortable neutrality.

Reforming the Newark school system would never be easy, reasons Ms Anderson. She talks of an ingrained culture of political cronyism—describing requests to hire the girlfriend of someone politically connected even though she could not write a cover letter; or not to sack another grandee’s nephew for punching someone in a school cafeteria. Ms Anderson also fired most of the district’s principals, whom she found unsatisfactory, and hired her own handpicked ones. Most of them remain, she notes proudly.

Disruption was also especially threatening because the school district was one of the largest employers in the city. The budget was nearly $1bn a year—meaning that even the impressive-seeming $200m donation, which was spent over five years, represented only a 4% annual increase in funding. Some of the jobs supported by the big budget seemed superfluous. In her book, Ms Russakoff documents a Gogol-like setting in which even the clerks had clerks. More than half of the district’s funding—a not-paltry $20,000 per head—was gobbled up in central bureaucratic costs before it reached classrooms.

In Newark, one-third of students now attend charter schools. According to an assessment done by CREDO, a research outfit at Stanford University, in 2015 Newark’s charters are the second highest-performing in the country. They deliver educational gains in maths and reading almost equivalent to a full additional year of instruction, the researchers estimated. The latest state assessments for reading and maths for pupils in the third to eight grades (roughly between the ages of 8 and 14) still show stark differences—60% of students in Newark’s charter pupils were proficient in English, compared with just 35% in the traditional public schools. For maths, the numbers were 48% compared with 26%. In both cases, the charters beat the state average—a remarkable fact given the impoverishment of Newark and the high quality of the state’s other schools. The differences in student population are not large enough to explain this divergence.

As a result, demand for charters among parents is high. Before a common enrolment system was in place, the waiting list for KIPP schools, a high-performing charter network, had 10,000 children on it, says Ryan Hill, the co-founder. Habib Ahad, a city contractor and graduate of the city’s public schools who has had three daughters attend KIPP schools, says he “wouldn’t even want to imagine if they went to the other schools”. One of the top-ranked high schools in the state of New Jersey is North Star Academy Charter School—which is 98% non-white and 85% poor. Last year’s valedictorian now attends Princeton.

Of course, not all charters are so high-performing. On average, their outcomes are similar to traditional public schools. They do better in cities, and worse elsewhere. The problem is that teachers’ unions are at their strongest in precisely the places where charters are the highest-performing, making the politics of school reform treacherous for Democrats. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator also running for the Democratic nomination, favoured school choice before she was a public figure, on similar progressive-minded grounds (she worried that the zero-sum race to buy property near good schools was endangering middle-class finances). But she opposed a referendum to increase the number of charters in Boston—despite the fact that these are the highest-performing in the country.

Mr Booker is trying to navigate these treacherous waters. His proposed education-policy platform for 2020 is to increase funding for educating special-needs children and to pay teachers more. These proposals are fine. Yet Mr Booker is the only candidate with a serious education achievement under his belt—and the essential ingredients of that turnaround look very different to his current platform. Although Mr Booker had originally touted his proposal as a national model, his campaign now says that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education reform, employing one of those unilluminating truisms that abound in American politics.

While it is shrewd politics to dodge unnecessary controversy, Mr Booker is already catching flak for his record in Newark. “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” blusters a headline from Jacobin, a widely read democratic socialist magazine. He has some defenders too, though. “It is a shame to deride the good work that was done in Newark as a defect of his candidacy or his worldview,” says Derrell Bradford, a longtime education-reform advocate who worked with Mr Booker in the early days of his career. “Newark now is better than when I took my job in 2002. If you’re a poor kid, a black kid, your opportunity to succeed is much higher than before. Is it what it should be, or ought to be? Still no—but there’s been tremendous progress.”