Charter schools, long divisive among Democrats, could shadow presidential hopefuls

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announces his presidential bid during a news conference Feb. 1 in Newark. His role in backing charter schools as that city's mayor has become an issue in his campaign.
(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images)

When Cory Booker, as mayor of this city, recruited a Republican governor and philanthropists from Wall Street and Silicon Valley for a radical experiment in school choice that alarmed teachers and rattled the community, he framed the move as a civil rights pursuit worth risking his political future over.

That risk now awaits him on the presidential campaign trail.

For the record:

2:15 p.m. March 6, 2019An earlier version of this article stated that Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform was a former Newark City councilman. Jeffries is the former president of the Newark School Advisory Board.

Since his election to the Senate from New Jersey in 2013, Booker has tamped down his fervor for charter schools. But the zeal with which he pursued school privatization in his hometown threatens to inhibit his path to the White House.

He is not the only Democrat in that politically awkward spot.

Just a few years ago, the appetite for school privatization ran strong in parts of the Democratic Party. It has waned since, but candidates seeking the Democratic nomination include some of the movement’s biggest backers.


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They likely will encounter strong headwinds in primaries where voter sympathy for striking educators in Los Angeles, Oakland and West Virginia has positioned teachers’ unions to wield serious power. In several of the recent strikes, the explosive — and often loosely regulated — growth of charters was a central complaint.

In 2016, teachers’ unions quickly got behind the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and faced a backlash from some activist members over her affinity with charters. That experience has union leaders putting candidates like Booker on notice that they will have to answer for their records.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said recently that she is not ruling out an endorsement of Booker or any other charter enthusiast before teachers have a chance to grill the candidates at a town hall. But she acknowledged their records would make them a tough sell.

“I have heard from some people that they view it as a complete impediment,” she said in an interview on CSPAN.

Teachers are suspicious not only of Booker. The Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of charter expansion through Race to the Top, the signature K-12 education policy of his administration, will have former Vice President Joe Biden facing tough questions from teachers, should he join the race.


Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire who donates generously to school choice efforts and a potential candidate, helped expand the number of charter schools in New York from 22 to 159 while in office.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts once advocated shifting public education to an “all-voucher system.” Loosening the “ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home” and provide a “shakeout” that might address economic segregation, she wrote in 2003.

Here in Newark, charters, and Booker’s role in advancing them, remain deeply divisive.

“There was damage done here,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, interviewed in his ragged office on the periphery of the rapidly gentrifying downtown.

“Teachers across the country are fighting back against corporate vouchers and privatization. They know what those things can do to a district, and inevitably they end up pointing to what happened in Newark. The reformers had carte blanche here, and this is the result: segregation in the classroom and denial of education to a certain class of students.”

“Teachers do not forget,” he added.

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Among the grievances that charter opponents will not forget is Booker’s past alignment with Betsy DeVos, now President Trump’s Education secretary and a figure reviled by union activists and their allies. Booker voted against her confirmation, but years earlier delivered a spirited keynote speech at a policy summit her organization held in which he defended school choice and private school vouchers.

Education has divided Democrats for years. Unlike healthcare or tax cuts or climate change, issues on which party members generally share goals, even if they disagree about tactics, education advocates disagree fiercely not just about the best path for fixing ailing schools but, more than a decade into the charter movement, about how it has changed school districts -- and even if communities welcome it.

“The core policies that Cory Booker pushed in Newark are at the heart of what parents support,” said Shavar Jeffries, a former president of the Newark School Advisory Board who now runs Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group. “This should absolutely be an asset for his campaign.”

But those policies weren’t an asset for Jeffries when he ran to succeed Booker as mayor. The race turned into a referendum on the education alliance Booker forged during his tenure in Newark with then-Gov. Chris Christie, whose administration had control of the city’s schools at the time.

Jeffries lost to Ras Baraka, a public school principal who had led the fight against the Booker plan.

Jeffries argues voters were not dissatisfied with the proliferation of charters, but by the way outsiders, mostly white policy advocates affiliated with Christie and national philanthropies, imposed their agenda on an overwhelmingly black and Latino city.


“Too many white people were coming in to run Newark’s schools and make decisions,” said Jeffries, who is black. “We needed a space for Newarkers to drive the change.”

Critics of the charter effort assess the situation more harshly.

“It was like a hostile takeover here,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, the local NAACP president. Charters have segregated students and divided communities, she says, pointing to studies showing the expansion of charters here left district schools absorbing a disproportionate number of children with serious special needs and limited English.

“It is not a good situation,” she said.

Roughly one in three Newark children now attend a charter school, some 18,900 students.

Booker’s allies argue the new schools have undeniably created new opportunities for low-income African American students, and parents of children whose kids have won placement in top-performing charters speak glowingly of the opportunity.

“There is not a city in America that has experienced a greater expansion of educational opportunity than Newark over the last decade,” said Ryan Hill, CEO of KIPP New Jersey charter schools. He points to test score results showing African American kids in Newark are now four times as likely to enroll in a school where students outperform the state average than they were in 2006.

“It was not a pretty process. There were protests. There were people whose job it was to protect the status quo,” he added. “But the upshot is that everybody said this would come at the expense of the district schools, and they got better during this time period too,” said Hill.

That’s a hotly disputed assessment, even among some of Booker’s dear friends.

“It was just a disaster,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a parent activist and family friend and otherwise admirer of Booker. “It did not work at all. It was such a caustic, dark time for Newark.”


The impact of charters here is difficult to assess in part because the charter proliferation coincided with other changes that had a role in lifting student achievement. An infusion of money flowed into the district as a result of long-running litigation pursued by the nonprofit Education Law Center. The state also launched a major expansion of pre-K programs in Newark.

Booker’s critics say his charter push – which Booker used as a springboard to national celebrity — undermined those other programs that more equitably raised student achievement.

“There was this significant effort to strengthen and reform schools, and Mayor Booker showed no interest,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. “He was missing in action.”

The frustration is echoed by Pedro Noguera, who ran an effort in Newark to boost public schools by bringing in social and medical service providers to address crucial nonacademic student needs. Noguera’s “Global Village” program, which Baraka warmly embraced at the school he headed as principal, was abandoned soon after the Booker-Christie plan was put in motion.

“It became very clear Mayor Booker wasn’t interested,” said Noguera, now an education professor at UCLA. “He was only interested in charter schools. There was this antipathy toward public schools.”

Like other states, New Jersey is starting to tap the brakes on charter growth. Gov. Phil Murphy called for a “timeout” on new charter school approvals during his 2017 campaign, and the state recently rejected a raft of applications for new charters.


That slowdown resembles the situation in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom and Tony Thurmond, the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, are strong allies of teachers’ unions, and legislative Democrats are moving swiftly to address the complaints raised by picketing educators. Lawmakers are promising to impose new restrictions and transparency measures and to slow the growth of the schools.

As for Booker: On the day he launched his presidential bid last month, he vowed in Newark that he would “run the boldest pro public school teacher campaign there is” and touted the gains public schools made under his tenure as mayor. He noted the New Jersey Education Assn. had endorsed his Senate run.

But he is asked about schools constantly on the campaign trail.

“I had to turn that city around,” Booker said in Iowa last month. “Our schools system had dramatically failing schools. Now we are the No. 1 city in America for ‘beat the odds’ schools: high poverty, high performance.”

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