Early in the 2020 presidential campaign, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is trying to set himself apart from a crowded field of Democratic candidates. He supports some big government policies such as the “Green New Deal,” and Medicare-for-All, but is also an advocate for important civil rights issues, like criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization — and, unlike many Democrats, Sen. Booker supports school choice.
Despite many in Booker’s party claiming that charter schools and voucher programs are bad for kids, he knows better. In fact, he recognizes school choice for what it is: a civil rights issue oft-neglected by other Democrats.
Booker has a laudable track record as an advocate for educational freedom. When he was Newark’s mayor from 2006 to 2013, he managed to triple the number of students attending charter schools in his city. He even served on the board of one of the city’s first charter schools. A vocal proponent of private school vouchers as well, Booker founded an organization devoted to expanding school choice in New Jersey.
Once, Booker was even a close partner of Betsy DeVos, current education secretary for the Trump administration and former president of school choice advocacy group the American Federation for Children.
These days, Booker’s support for educational freedom may seem a rare break from the Democratic mold, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Many of America’s top cities for school choice — including D.C., Milwaukee, Detroit — are Democratic strongholds. In fact, the modern school choice movement was largely pioneered by urban, African-American Democrats and influential thinkers from the left-leaning Brookings Institution who were eager to give families in struggling school districts the right to choose a better education. They recognized the major civil rights problem that emerges when government forces disadvantaged families to attend low-performing public schools and cuts off their other options. This is often done in the name of equal opportunity, but policies that restrict choice generally perpetuate inequities in school quality.
It’s actually easy to see why those on the Left should in theory support charter schools, vouchers, and other school choice initiatives. Poor families are the ones most affected by underperforming public schools, and school choice programs disproportionately help disadvantaged children. Nonetheless, many in the Democratic Party claim that school choice proponents are out to “gut” America’s public schools and leave disadvantaged families in the dust.
Teachers’ unions largely drive this false narrative. The two largest teacher unions, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, combine to form one of the Democratic Party’s largest base of support.
Booker used to confront unions when they stood in his way. In a 2008 forum at the Democratic National Convention, he called unions “vicious” for their opposition to education reform, complaining that the party’s establishment was unwilling to stand up against powerful union interests that were trapping children in poor schools. Later, he noted that he was “tarred and feathered” for his stances on education and was “literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told [he] would never win office if [he] kept talking about charters.”
When, as mayor, he pushed to implement a new contract with Newark teachers that included merit-based pay, where teachers could receive bonuses up to $12,500 based on student performance, the teachers’ union fought back, openly opposing his re-election in 2010 and later refusing to endorse his senatorial campaign in 2013.
But Booker’s efforts worked. An above-average 55.8 percent of Newark’s elementary charter school students test as proficient in English Language Arts, while only 32.5 percent of Newark’s public school district students in grades three through eight score as proficient. Similarly, 44.5 percent of Newark’s elementary charter students test proficient in math, compared to only 26.4 percent of their public school counterparts. In 2015, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Newark’s charter school sector was the second-highest performing charter network in the country.
Faced by increased competition from charters, traditional public schools have made gains, too. They’ve grown graduation rates by nearly 20 percent since 2011.
While no reform is ever perfect, Sen. Cory Booker shouldn’t have to hide from his past education policy decisions, after all, they benefited thousands of Newark children. The Democrats’ concerns over civil rights compels them to seek out reforms and policies that help disadvantaged students — so if anything, the work Sen. Booker has done on school choice should be celebrated, not shunned.
A version of this column first appeared in The Hill.