Staff Columnist

Can Democrats disagree about school choice?

Cory Booker's record on charter schools could face opposition

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks during a stop on his Iowa Rise Tour of the state at the African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Avenue SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks during a stop on his Iowa Rise Tour of the state at the African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Avenue SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

U.S. Sen Cory Booker, who visited Iowa last week after announcing his presidential bid earlier this month, earned national recognition a decade ago as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, where he led school choice reforms and bolstered the city’s charter school programs.

The policies Booker championed have long been controversial within Democratic politics. Booker enters the race at a moment when devotees to traditional public schools are ramping up their efforts to resist school choice reform in Iowa and around the nation. Is there room for reasoned dissent on the Democratic debate stage?

Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was a charter school supporter for many years. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, oversaw the first federal program supporting state charter schools, and alternative schools have shown some success in New York, which Clinton represented in the U.S. Senate.

A moment at the National Education Association’s 2016 meeting provides an important insight about the politics of school choice. Clinton suggested charters should be part of the discussion, with an emphasis on documented outcomes.

“When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America. Rather than starting from ideology, let’s start from what’s best for our kids,” Clinton said, according to a Washington Post report from the event.

For that, Clinton drew boos from some teachers’ union members, and she later backed off from praising charter schools. While alternative schools have demonstrated differing levels of success, opposition to school choice is often dogmatic, rather than evidence-based, an unfortunate irony for a discipline founded on the pursuit of knowledge.

To his credit, Booker has signaled he is prepared to defend his record on school reform, rather than bow to political pressure.

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As mayor, Booker worked with the Republican governor and assembled millions in private donations to retain teachers and support his local charter schools, which are free to attend but aren’t subject to the same curricular requirements as traditional schools.

The experiment was widely criticized in its early years for making underwhelming progress, but more recent studies show substantial gains in test scores and post-high school achievement. To Booker’s accounting, no district with as many impoverished children has shown more improvement in the past 10 years.

Booker says he’s willing to pay a political price if it means the children he serves will get a better education.

“The politics, the interest groups, the way it played into a national backlash against school reformers, all this stuff has to become secondary to what is happening for a low-income child in Newark, New Jersey,” Booker said during an interview last year with the education policy blog the 74.

I hope Booker holds strong and presents a substantive debate to Democratic caucusgoers. Whether he wins or loses, it’s a debate we must have, based on facts and not on ideology alone.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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