As the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker took on the treacherous task of thoroughly reviewing the city's schools, placing big bets on charter schools, teacher responsibility, and philanthropy.
It was a different time. Shortly after Booker was elected mayor in 2006, Michelle Rhee, the radical reformer who once again made the Washington, DC school district, became a national star. Educational reform was the next big thing. Disruption was the modus operandi of the day, even in deeply democratic urban areas, where a generation of malaise had motivated local leaders to think far beyond the box to improve their schools.
But now, while Booker follows the presidency, the Newark education reforms and their complex legacy are increasingly out of step with a left-wing Democratic Party, more animated by teachers' strikes than by the expansion of charter schools.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) takes photos with people after speaking during a campaign event in North Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 24, 2019. Ethan Miller / Getty Images
From 2010, Booker asked tens of millions of dollars from Mark Zuckerberg and other wealthy donors to finance a revision of the school system. They put their faith in corporate style management: managers were instructed to consider themselves CEOs and teachers received bonuses based on student performance. And Booker realized his vision: school enrollments in the school system increased, clients and teachers were replaced and a new trade union contract extended the school day and established new ways to assess the performance of teachers. A new open enrollment system gave families more say about the school their children would attend.
A decade later, however, there are two paradoxical realities in Newark. The city's charter sector is booming, and research shows that student performance is improving, but traditional schools still face recurring budget deficits. To this day, reshape opponents and supporters bitterly about whether Booker's revision failed or succeeded.
"There is really no better story about educational benefits in an urban American environment than you will encounter in Newark," said Chris Cerf, who was close to Booker as a New Jersey state inspector and later oversaw Newark's school district. "The only conclusion to reach is that it worked."
At the same time, the AOV chairman John Abeigon of the city portrays the Newark schools as & # 39; a crime scene & # 39 ;.
"What they have left behind is Dresden," he says. "This is an educational Dresden."
Booker & # 39; s quest for school reform is a window on its strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The project was idealistic and ambitious and the cause was just. Newark schools had failed with their students for years. He worked across the aisle and united Democratic technocrats, Silicon Valley and a Republican governor on a shared mission.
But the education program was hampered by a top-down approach, poor reporting and inattention to the consequences of the bulldozer ethos of the reform movement. Some students have indeed seen real gains. But a fracture has opened that is still not healed.
"I have implemented important reforms and worked to reward good teachers in an effort to quickly improve schools for children who could not wait while we sought longer-term support and further changes that our system desperately needed," Booker said in a statement to Vox, the changes had "paid off" for the city's students.
"I will continue to fight until every child has the opportunity to get the best education possible," Booker said, "regardless of the zip code in which they were born."
Democrats have renewed their confidence in the government to bring about the change they are looking for in education, health care and climate change. While Booker is looking for the nomination, he may have to reconcile the mayor he used to be, and the educational project he's still proud of, with today's Democratic Party he now hopes to lead.
Cory Booker & # 39; s revision of the Newark schools, explained
When Booker became mayor in 2006, the Newark schools were supervised by the state of New Jersey. The state government had taken over ten years earlier after an investigation revealed corruption within the school district bureaucracy and a terribly poor student performance. The study showed that the longer students stayed at the Newark schools, the less likely they were to succeed. But under state control, student performance was still stagnant. Most children were not reading at their level, and the high school graduation rate was barely above 50 percent.
Booker had meanwhile argued for years that public education should include options that go beyond traditional neighborhood schools.
"I don't define public education as a public guaranteed space and a publicly run, publicly funded building where our children are sent based on their zip code," Booker said in a speech at the upstanding Manhattan Institute in 2000, when he was a Newark City Council . "Public education is the use of public dollars to educate our children in the schools that are best equipped for that purpose: public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools."
At that time, Booker's vision was still right of many democrats in the field of education. While some Democrats were enthusiastic about experimenting with charter schools, which are funded by the government but run independently, they have usually drawn the line on school vouchers, allowing students to use public funds to go to a private school (including, for example, the speech of Booker suggested religious affiliation). ).
Dan DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and School Superintendent Michelle Rhee tour Benning Elementary School, in Washington, DC, on June 12, 2007. The Washington Post / Getty Images
But less than a decade later, charter schools were on the rise. Rhee had prepared a national model in the DC schools. President Obama's education office used billions of dollars in incentive money to encourage states to implement reforms, including charter-friendly policies. School officials who were crusaders against teachers' unions were rewarded with glowing profiles and magazine covers.
Against that background, Booker worked with newly elected governor Chris Christie, a republican, to move from Newark & # 39; the capital of the nation's charter school & # 39; such as Dale Russakoff, who reported on the reform efforts in the award-winning book The price, reported. He saw himself as on a mission to save the schools in the city for so long.
"He is a strong advocate of educational equity," says Cerf about Booker. "He is a strong advocate of public education as the main catalyst for addressing a central political ideal that a person's birth circumstances should not determine a person's life outcomes."
Booker had already raised 20 million dollars from the biggest names in philanthropy, including the Waltons, founders of Walmart and Bill Gates, who were closely involved in education. But he would need a buy-in from the state, which still controls the school district, to fully realize his vision and act quickly.
The mayor presented Christie in 2010 with a confidential reform plan. He proposed a deliberate top-down strategy, the only way Booker thought she could overcome the institutional forces that would oppose such a radical intervention.
Cory Booker, then Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, with John Scully (left), from private investment firm Scully Brothers, and his wife Regina Scully at a conference in Idaho in 2012. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were also present. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
"Real change has victims and those who flourished under the existing order will fight loudly and viciously," Booker's proposal said.
In the meantime, Zuckerberg was fishing for an educational project. After he and Booker met in California, the Facebook founder promised to agree on up to $ 100 million in funding for the Newark project. It was a fall in the annual budget of $ 1 billion in the school district, but Zuckerberg's money became a totem for the Newark program.
They applied the top-down approach that Booker had planned if necessary. When a non-profit organization was convened to see how the millions would be spent on philanthropic support, only Zuckerberg, another billionaire, Goldman Sachs and Booker made the cut. Early proposals to open new charter schools and double enrollment at existing schools were not disclosed in the public hearings that Booker promoted, Russakoff reported. Later, when the advisory board voted against opening a slate of charter schools, the state school inspector raided them.
The plan included the full menu of educational reforms: Cami Anderson, the divisive Newark superintendent who took over the district, eventually replaced half of the district's school directors. The district wrote a new contract with its teachers' union, which included student performance in evaluating teachers, while teachers received a one-off but long-delayed pay rise.
Specific schools focused on a turnaround, with half of their teachers eventually being replaced. By the 2015-2016 school year, eleven traditional schools and three charter schools were closed due to poor performance. New schools, both traditional and charter, opened. Charter schools moved to empty public school spaces.
In 2014, Newark set up an open enrollment system that allows families to rank their favorite schools and have a choice of where their children were present. Over the course of a few years, the entire school system was recreated.
“Sen. Booker has done things that few mayors are willing to do. He intervened aggressively, knowing that you do that, you will have all kinds of scars on your back, "Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, who was in the middle of the Newark fight as a school board member and later ran for mayor." You start a political war. "
The reforms in education in Newark had to deal with a fierce reaction
Initially, the results of Booker's experiment were mixed. Student performance, measured by test scores, declined in Newark in the first few years after the reform came into effect, although some of the new charter schools were more promising.
Meanwhile, the prediction that Booker had predicted had arrived quickly and continued to exist for years.
The trade unions felt that they were the target of Booker's and Christie's plan. Reformers believed that seniority rules made it harder to get rid of bad teachers and to retain and promote younger, promising educators. The charter schools that Booker liked to promote were not trade union workplaces, which meant that the trade unions were less able to negotiate on behalf of all the teachers in the city.
"The original goal was not to reform education. That was the veil," says Abeigon, the Newark teacher trade union president. "The original goal was to discourage public education unions."
The reformers insisted on provisions in a new collective bargaining agreement – extended learning, mitigation of tenure protection, new measurability statistics – that the unions felt were intended to undermine. The teachers eventually approved the overwhelming majority in the new agreement in 2012, largely thanks to the $ 31 million in back-pay that was included. Reformers eagerly cite that provision to oppose claims that they are after the unions, although in the same breath they accuse opponents of reforming unsavory protestants.
Less than three years after Mark Zuckerberg pledged $ 100 million to rebuild the struggling schools of Newark, the district was overwhelmed by a proposal on large-scale layoffs of teachers that threatened to disrupt broader reform efforts. Rich Schultz / AP
The teachers' union was unmistakably mobilized and showed up at every community event or town hall. Press releases revealed that millions of dollars from the Zuckerberg gift were spent on private consultants, which contributed to the feeling of being taken over by an outsider. When schools were closed, principals were fired and the teaching staff replaced, the full breadth of the changes that Booker and his allies had planned became clear – and many in the community were taken by surprise.
"This was based on a competitive model and market theory that is simply fundamentally inadequate," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was closely involved in the fight. "They have basically defended and weakened the neighborhood choices that people really wanted."
Reformers now acknowledge that they did not adequately prepare Newark for what they were going to do. Booker planned for community town halls to discuss upcoming changes, but according to Russakoff & # 39; s report, event organizers were not told that the plans include closing down failing schools and expanding charter schools.
"We had to be at the forefront of the effects of charter growth. We also had to be prepared that it will not become quieter," Anderson says. "We knew it would be noisy because of the politics of the status quo. But it's not that Newark politics were quiet before I came to town. & # 39;
Others claim that closing schools and firing teachers, even if needed, would never become popular.
"My own personal hypothesis is that the level of resistance would not have decreased," says Cerf. "If you make transformational changes to a system that is so broken, you will annoy some people."
Reformers saw school closures and dismissed teachers as the outpouring of the weed-stifling Newark education. Residents saw how they tore up the foundations of a community. The optics of Wall Street-funded philanthropists who were in control of a poor, majority-black district yielded a story in which whites and white outsiders secretly took over Newark as they filled the pockets of private consultants.
When the charter schools settled on empty public school spaces, it added to the feeling that this was a sort of "colonization," as Ras Baraka, the headmaster and the opposition leader who later became mayor, described it then.
Cami Anderson, then head of the public Newark Public School system, became embroiled in a bitter fight with education unions about the future of the largest school district of New Jersey. Julio Cortez / AP
At the time, Booker had a reputation as a great communicator, a jovial Twitter presence that was happy with creating walkways for residents during snow storms. Even now he presents himself as someone who can unite America. But the political record shows that he has not sold the Newark reforms to his voters. In April 2011, anti-reformers shockedly won two school board elections, an early down payment on the political prize that would be paid years later.
When Christie became entangled in Bridgegate and Booker decided to flee to Senate, Baraka ran in 2014 to replace him as mayor for a message about taking back schools in the city. Independent groups that supported Baraka published advertisements that raised the ominous specter that outsiders took over the city.
One ad warned, "They're coming. From Wall Street. From Trenton … Chris Christie's allies and Wall Street hedge funds have an agenda. Turn off public schools in Newark. Turn off parents. And destroy our schools for their personal win. "
Baraka has won.
The state of Newark schools, 10 years after the Booker Crusade, began
Nine years out, the Newark project – the signature performance of presidential candidate Cory Booker – is remembered as a failure. But the real legacy is much more complicated.
The program (with minor adjustments) continues to exist under the mayor of Baraka and researchers now have a few years of data to start estimating the effect it had on Newark students.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka attends a unit rally in Newark city center to support immigrants on January 18, 2018, in Newark, New Jersey.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
A study by Harvard professor Tom Zane and his colleagues, funded with a grant from the Zuckerberg Foundation, found that the growth of mathematics and reading performance had fallen in the first few years. But the English achievement in the 2015-2016 school year exceeded the growth rates of the years before Booker's plan came into effect. The growth rates of mathematical performance had returned to the same levels as before the reform.
I immediately asked Zane if the Newark reforms had been worth it, given what he saw in student performance. "I don't really know the answer to that question," he told me. It would depend, he said, as the upward trend that his team found in 2015-2016 continued.
Jesse Margolis, who runs an educational analysis research firm and was initially contracted by Cerf to follow reform efforts, has studied more recent data and says he still sees improvement in both English and mathematics.
Due to another metric he studied, Newark was a sub-average district compared to his socio-economic peers and is now among the top 25 percent. Graduation rates have risen throughout New Jersey, but the improvement in Newark has surpassed that of the state.
Regardless of how you cut it, Margolis says: "The results of the school district have been improved in a meaningful and substantial and important way." He cannot say how much of that improvement is directly due to the Newark reforms, but anyway his strong data points are in favor of the Booker program.
The most promising data does not come from completely disinterested parties. But both Daan and Margolis were reluctant to transfer too much credit for the reform project, and there have been other significant statistics, but not the kind you find in a class, suggesting that the revision has become more accepted by the city.
Although Baraka came up against reforms – and continues to insist on limiting charter school enrollments, as Chalkbeats Patrick Wall reported – most of the Booker program remains. That might change after the city finally regained control of its schools last year, but it seems likely that many of the reforms with which Booker helped are here to stay.
"There is a difference between running somewhere and turning something," says Cerf, who worked closely with Baraka while in charge of the Newark schools.
Baraka and advocates of charter schools worked together twice for & # 39; unity tickets & # 39; to reach out to the school board elections. There have been some minor changes: for example, extensive learning has been reversed. But the charter registration has steadily grown and tripled since the reforms started, and the open registration program is still ongoing.
That is the story that reformers focus on, proof of their statement. "The results are the proof in the pudding," says Anderson.
But the old public schools still have problems. This is another complicated story – the registration went down, the inheritance obligations of the district are considerable, Christie has been financing state education for years – but the charters are part of the comparison.
Money follows the student under the financing formula of state education in New Jersey; for the 2016-2017 school year, the district has transferred more than $ 240 million to charter schools, an increase of $ 60 million a decade ago, according to the charter-skeptical Center for Education Law. The experts at the center described "an uneven financing system in which the [Newark’s traditional schools] to contend with dwindling resources, while the charter schools maintain their level of funding from year to year. "
Charter enrollment has grown considerably, but more than half of Newark's children still attend traditional public schools. The traditional schools serve more English-speaking pupils and students with learning difficulties, which cost more money to learn.
Spending per pupil on regular education fell by more than $ 1,000 from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, the lawyers estimated. Spending on professional development decreased by more than $ 500 per student. The Newark district has also sold buildings, cut benefits and increased taxes to cover the budget deficit.
"Looking back at how spending has changed during this period … you see significant spending savings in certain categories that are most meaningful to student performance," said Danielle Farrie, research director at the Center for Education Law.
This is Newark's central contradiction: the charter sector has succeeded, and even a critic like Baraka cannot take the risk of reversing that progress; Many African-American families want the charters as an option for their children. But the traditional schools, where most of the city's children are still present, have undermined their finances.
What the successes and failures in Newark mean for Cory Booker 2020
The Newark program seemed, in its infancy, the high water mark of the dual, centrist, charter-oriented reform movement. It is starting to look more like a last sob.
"It has become more difficult for regular democrats to become pro-charter schools," said Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America think tank.
In Boston, a Democratic city where the evidence seemed to clearly show that charter schools had improved education, voters briefly rejected a 2016 voting letter initiative to expand it. In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike and pushed back against charter school expansions, with support from presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Teachers, students and supporters are marching on the fourth day of a seven-day strike in Oakland, California, on February 26, 2019.Jane Tyska / MediaNews Group / The Mercury News via Getty Images
In his statement to Vox, Booker pointed out that he had been ratified twice by the New Jersey Education Association in his senate campaigns. In the Senate, he is the author of the STRIVE Act, which would increase funding for teacher preparation programs, increase federal forgiveness for teachers, and provide additional assistance to low-income communities and under-represented groups for teacher certification to get.
"I think that if Booker were mayor today, he would have a very different opinion about charter schools and public schools than twenty years ago, twenty years ago," says Weingarten. "This happened at a time when the Democrats were trying to act as mini-republicans. … That educational change strategy didn't work and I think Booker is smart enough and reflective enough to actually see that."
Democrats today do not have much enthusiasm for challenging trade unions, at a time when Republicans are implementing laws to work and strike teachers, with abundant public support, to fight for fairer rewards and better benefits. Support for charter schools among democratic voters has fallen from nearly 50 percent earlier this decade to just 36 percent now, according to the annual Education Next survey.
"I think the reform community both declared victory and lost the argument," says Andy Rotherham, who worked on education policy under President Bill Clinton. "Things are pretty tribal now. Newark was a microsystem of that."
Booker can't run away from his history, and he's not trying, because he recently told the educational reform-friendly site The 74 that he'd never seen such a distance between a popular term and the data & # 39; .
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks at a campaign stop at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 8, 2019. Scott Olson / Getty Images
"I'm proud of my record, it's nothing to defend. I don't think we should have one-size-fits-all education," Booker told reporters when he launched his presidential campaign. "Local leaders must make decisions about what works best for them."
It is the same problem that the Newark reforms have always presented to him: Cory Booker is proud of what he has done. The challenge is to convince democratic voters that he was right.