Waters: 9 Theories That Might Explain Cory Booker’s Change of Heart on Charter Schools in New York Times Essay
I was taken aback when I opened The New York Times and came across Sen. Cory Booker’s column denouncing his previous support for public charter schools. Prior to entering the Democratic presidential race, Booker was a vocal advocate for school choice, using Newark as an example of the positive impact that high-quality charter schools can have on struggling school systems. However, since joining the primary, he has jumped on the anti-choice bandwagon of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, losing his previous progressive stance. Something has definitely changed. In his column, Booker acknowledges the importance of including high-achieving public charter schools in discussions about practical K-12 solutions and recognizes their effectiveness in providing opportunities for children who have limited options.
My reaction to this change of stance went from being pleased that Booker is finally acknowledging the impressive improvement in student achievement in Newark, largely attributed to the presence of high-performing charter schools (as I had advised him), to questioning why he waited until now to criticize the other candidates for their opposition to charter schools and accusing his advisors of poor judgment. During a presidential candidate forum sponsored by AFSCME, when asked about charter schools, Booker claimed that there was an outrageous and unacceptable assault on education.
So, what brought about this apparent change of heart? What made Booker finally acknowledge his educational legacy in Newark, which has turned one of the worst school districts into the top city in the United States for high-poverty, high-performance schools, as recognized by the Center on Reinventing Public Education? Here are nine possible explanations.
1. Booker is well-aware that he has very slim chances of winning the nomination, which may have led him to reconsider aligning himself with front-runners Sanders and Warren, who reject the schools that most black and brown families support.
2. When Booker returns to Newark, he encounters an increasing number of residents who are in favor of school choice. In fact, during the school board elections in April, charter supporters emerged victorious, with one even receiving the endorsement of former charter opponent Mayor Ras Baraka. Newark residents are not afraid to voice their opinions and challenge those in power, and perhaps Booker has finally started listening.
3. Booker might also be taking into account the analysis of experts like Jon Valant from the Brookings Institution, who stated in August that Booker finds himself between a rock and a hard place when pressured by the progressive Democrats’ stance on charter schools, as distancing himself from these schools essentially means distancing himself from his successful record in Newark.
4. Booker could be aware of a new GoFundMe campaign led by a powerful coalition of black and Latino parents and education advocates from across the country. This coalition aims to raise funds to meet with Elizabeth Warren and express their concerns about her recently unveiled anti-charter education plan, which they believe fails to consider the needs of children of color.
5. Perhaps Booker has taken note of the backlash against Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who, in collaboration with Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, has implemented a charter school moratorium despite there being 35,000 children on charter school waiting lists.
6. It is possible that Booker now realizes that no matter how hard he tries to distance himself from his previous stance on charter schools, teachers unions will never support him. For instance, Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, which represents the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, grades Booker’s charter school stance with an "F." In contrast, Warren receives an "A+," despite having previously supported school choice, while Sanders receives an "A," and Biden gets a "B-" due to his association with Barack Obama, whom some consider a radical privatizer.
In conclusion, there are several potential factors that could have influenced Cory Booker’s decision to change his position on charter schools. Whether it is due to political calculations, pressure from constituents, the repercussions of distancing himself from his successful record in Newark, awareness of parents’ concerns, backlash against the governor’s anti-charter stance, or the realization that teachers unions will not support him, the reasons behind Booker’s about-face remain open to interpretation.
Perhaps he has witnessed Warren backtrack on her support for charter schools and accountability in public schools, realizing that this kind of platform prioritizes the interests of adults rather than the needs of students, as noted by the Washington Post. Maybe he has also seen Sanders, as Amy Wilkins points out, tell black parents (who overwhelmingly support charter schools) that they can no longer send their children to charter schools. Maybe the role of Faust doesn’t align with his beliefs as strongly as it does with other Democratic hopefuls.
Maybe he is genuinely listening to parents of color who, according to a 2019 poll by the Benenson Strategy Group, strongly support charter schools because these schools provide a free, high-quality education in neighborhoods that were previously neglected by the education system. Perhaps he had a campaign team member present at the NJ Parent Summit, where Nicole Harris emphasized the importance of parental choice and selecting the best schools for their children. Maybe someone from his team also heard Troy Still talk about the opportunities now available to children, preventing them from falling into gangs and street violence. They may have heard Tafshier Cosby express the idea that teachers are responsible for teaching, but it is up to parents to ensure their children receive the best possible education. Or perhaps they heard Ruthven Haneef Auguste discuss the low standards in some schools for students with disabilities, like his daughter at KIPP. Shayvonne Anderson, a Newark school board member, may have expressed that this issue is about the well-being of children, not adult politics.
Here’s the issue: When Sanders/Warren criticize charter schools to appease union lobbyists, they are not being socially aware. They are oversimplifying and ignoring the complexities of public education to satisfy adults. They are turning their backs on a growing faction of the Democratic Party that supports school choice. As Chris Stewart puts it, they are pandering "to the public relations departments of America’s national teachers unions."
Their proposed policies will harm the futures of children living in cities like Newark, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.
This doesn’t strike me as "progressive" or in line with Democratic values. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the Trumpian "build that wall" rhetoric that earns applause from those who lack social awareness.
We should strive to do better.
Booker wrote, "The Democratic Party is at its best when we prioritize helping people above all else. We fall short of that when we rush to adopt positions that may be popular in polls but don’t address the difficult choices that low-income families face."
Right now, we are not at our best, despite union endorsements. It’s too late for Booker, but I like to think that if he had remained true to his authentic education platform from the beginning, he would have been more prominent on the national stage. Perhaps the eventual winner will have the wisdom to be a genuine progressive who goes beyond mere lip service for our most marginalized Americans (maybe with Booker as the Vice President?).
If not, there’s always 2024.
Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics on NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She served on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey for 12 years, serving as president for nine of those years.
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