Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Move over Mayor Pete; there are 2 Rhodes scholars in the Democratic Primary

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) cheers to the crowd Dec. 7 as he exits the stage after speak
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) cheers to the crowd Dec. 7 as he exits the stage after speaking during the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

United We Win, a super PAC formed in November, released a 30-second ad called “The Other Rhodes Scholar” touting the achievements of Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

“As mayor, Cory Booker made Newark schools No. 1 for beating the odds,” the ad that aired in Iowa markets claimed. “He passed criminal justice reform in a Republican Senate. ... This Rhodes scholar mayor has what it takes to beat Donald Trump.”

Analysis

The ad portrays Booker’s accomplishments as overshadowed by the other former mayor and Rhodes scholar in the race — South Bend, Ind.’s Pete Buttigieg, whose credential as a Rhodes scholar has been cited more often, according to a November 2019 analysis by the Huffington Post.

There are three main details we’ll check.

Graded an A

First, Booker was in fact awarded the prestigious international Rhodes scholar fellowship in 1992, according to a Rhodes scholar database by Rhodes Trust.

A news release from the Association of American Rhodes Scholars points out Booker is a “graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, and attended the University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.”

We are not analyzing whether Booker “has what it takes to beat Donald Trump.”

On the claim of criminal justice reform passing a Republican Senate, Philip Swibinski, of United We Win, said this refers to the First Step Act, a “landmark piece of legislation that Booker sponsored and championed.” He referred to a news release from Booker’s Senate website.

The First Step Act relaxed certain mandatory minimum sentencing rules, placed inmates in facilities closer to home, provided relief for non-violent offenders and outlined incentives for completing recidivism-reducing programs, among other changes, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

When the bill was signed into law in December 2018, the Republicans had a 51-47 majority in the Senate, according to the U.S. Senate website. Booker was a co-sponsor of the bill and was cited in media reports as “central to the bill’s passage.”

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The last claim — that Booker made Newark schools No. 1 for beating the odds — is more complicated.

One, “beating the odds” is an ambiguous phrase. Second, municipal governments typically don’t have oversight of school systems, which warrants additional scrutiny of why Booker should get credit.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington describes “beating the odds” — as do several other organizations — as a measure showing “the average share of students in a city enrolled in a school whose proficiency rates outpaced demographically similar schools elsewhere in the state.”

Based on a three-year analysis conducted by the center, Newark was “beating the odds” at the highest rate in the nation. That is to say, the portion of students scoring at or above proficiency — beyond what models would predict based on local and statewide school demographics — was the highest in the nation.

But does Booker get to take credit for it?

By the time Booker took office — he served as mayor of Newark for seven years, 2006-13 — the state had been running Newark’s long-failing, corruption-prone schools for 11 years with little improvement.

Booker, who long had championed education reform and options beyond traditional schools, helped persuade Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to pledge up to $100 million in matching funds and solicited numerous other multimillion-dollar contributions to his school reform plan, which focused on charter schools.

Charter schools receive public money but operate independently of the public school system. In New Jersey, they can be for-profit or nonprofit operations.

Booker presented the plan to then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who joined the effort. The plan included closing low-performing schools and tying teacher pay to student performance, according to a report by Vox.

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The partnership and reform efforts were examined extensively in Dale Russakoff’s book, “The Prize.

On Booker’s watch, municipal policies supported the charter school movement, including “bringing to life a downtown complex that featured affordable housing for teachers and space for three charter schools,” according to a report about Booker’s legacy of spreading charter schools in Newark in Chalkbeat, a website for education reporting.

The wisdom and success of charter schools is still debated. NorthJersey.com published an extensive investigation about how investors and developers are cashing in on charter schools, which have little public oversight, on the backs of taxpayers.

Nonetheless, that doesn't directly relate to the claim at hand. Newark’s public schools returned from state to local control in 2018 with a graduation rate of 78 percent, a 27-point rise from 2011, according to NJ.com

Conclusion

The measurable claims in the United We Stand ad about Booker check out. He was a Rhodes scholar, and the ad fairly states Booker’s role in the passage of criminal justice reform with bipartisan legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate. While questions linger about the charter school strategy in New Jersey, the ad fairly credits Booker for his role in the sweeping changes, which include students now outperforming expectations at the highest rate in the nation, according to one analysis.

Fact Checker gives these claims an A.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context. If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli of The Gazette.

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