As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker took up the treacherous task of overhauling the city’s schools, betting big on charter schools, teacher accountability, and philanthropy.
It was a different time. Shortly after Booker was elected mayor in 2006, Michelle Rhee, the radical reformer who remade the Washington, DC, school district, became a national star. Education reform was the next great cause. 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 outside the box to fix their schools.
But today, as Booker pursues the presidency, the Newark education reforms and their complicated legacy look increasingly out of sync with a leftward-drifting Democratic Party more animated by teachers strikes than by expanding charter schools.
Starting in 2010, Booker solicited tens of millions of dollars from Mark Zuckerberg and other wealthy donors to help fund an overhaul of the school system. They put their faith in corporate-style management: Principals were told to think of themselves as CEOs, and teachers received bonuses based on students’ performance. And Booker did realize his vision: Charter school enrollments soared, principals and teachers were replaced, and a new union contract extended the school day and established new ways to judge teachers’ performance. A new system of open enrollment gave families more say in the school their children would attend.
A decade later, however, there are two paradoxical realities in Newark. The city’s charter sector is thriving, and research shows student performance is improving, but the traditional schools that still serve a majority of the city’s kids face debilitating budget deficits. Reform opponents and supporters fight bitterly to this day about whether Booker’s overhaul failed or succeeded.
“There is honestly no better story of educational gains in an urban American environment than you’ll find in Newark,” Chris Cerf, who was close to Booker as New Jersey state superintendent and later oversaw the Newark school district himself, told me. “The only conclusion to reach is that it worked.”
At the same time, the city’s teachers union president, John Abeigon, portrays the Newark schools as “a crime scene.”
“What they left behind is Dresden,” he says. “This is an educational Dresden.”
Booker’s quest for school reform is a window into his strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The project was idealistic and ambitious, and the cause was just. Newark schools had been failing their students for years. Booker worked across the aisle, uniting Democratic technocrats, Silicon Valley, and a Republican governor on a shared mission.
But the education program was hobbled by a top-down approach, poor messaging, and an inattention to the fallout of the reform movement’s bulldozing ethos. Some students have indeed seen real gains. But a rift was opened that has still not healed.
“I pursued important reforms and worked to reward good teachers in an effort to quickly improve schools for kids who couldn’t wait while we sought longer-term support and further changes our system desperately needed,” Booker said in a statement to Vox, adding the changes had “borne fruit” for the city’s students.
“I’ll keep fighting until every child has the opportunity to get the best education possible,” he said, “no matter the ZIP code they were born in.”
Democrats have renewed their faith in government to bring about the change they seek in education, health care, and climate change. As Booker seeks the nomination, he may have to reconcile the mayor he used to be, and the education project he is still proud of, with the Democratic Party of today that he now hopes to lead.
Cory Booker’s overhaul of the Newark schools, explained
When Booker became mayor in 2006, the Newark schools were being overseen by the state of New Jersey. The state government had taken over 10 years earlier after an investigation revealed corruption in the school district bureaucracy and appallingly poor student achievement. That investigation had concluded that the longer students stayed in the Newark schools, the less likely they were to succeed. But under state control, student performance was still stagnant. Most kids weren’t reading at their grade level, and the high school graduation rate was barely above 50 percent.
Booker, meanwhile, had been arguing for years that public education should include options beyond traditional neighborhood schools.
“I define public education not as a publicly 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 right-leaning Manhattan Institute in 2000, when he was a Newark municipal board member. “Public education is the use of public dollars to educate our children at the schools that are best equipped to do so — public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools.”
At that time, his view was still to the right of many Democrats on education. While some Democrats were enthusiastic about experimenting with charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, they usually drew the line at school vouchers, which allow students to use public money to attend private school (including, as Booker’s speech suggested, religiously affiliated ones).
But less than a decade later, charter schools were on the rise. Rhee had set a national model in the DC schools. President Obama’s Education Department was using several billion dollars in stimulus money to encourage states to adopt reforms including charter-friendly policies. School officials who crusaded against teachers unions were being rewarded with glowing profiles and magazine covers.
Against that backdrop, Booker teamed up with the newly elected Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, to make Newark “the charter school capital of the nation,” as Dale Russakoff, who chronicled the reform efforts in the award-winning book The Prize, reported. He saw himself as on a mission to save the city’s schools, so troubled for so long.
“He is a big believer in educational equity,” Cerf says of Booker. “He is a deep believer in public education as being the most important catalytic agent to address a central political ideal, which is one’s birth circumstances should not determine one’s life outcomes.”
Booker had already raised $20 million from the biggest names in philanthropy, including the Waltons, founders of Walmart, and Bill Gates, who were heavily involved in education. But he would need buy-in from the state, which still controlled the school district, to fully realize his vision and move quickly.
The mayor presented Christie with a confidential reform plan in 2010. He proposed an intentionally top-down strategy, the only way Booker thought they could overcome the institutional forces that would oppose such a sweeping intervention.
“Real change has casualties, and those who prospered under the preexisting order will fight loudly and viciously,” Booker’s proposal read.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg was fishing for an education project. After he and Booker met in California, the Facebook founder pledged to match up to $100 million in funding for the Newark project. It was a drop in the school district’s roughly $1 billion annual budget, but the Zuckerberg money became a totem for the Newark program.
They applied the top-down approach Booker had framed as necessary to the effort. When a nonprofit board was convened to oversee how the millions in philanthropic support would be spent, only Zuckerberg, another billionaire, Goldman Sachs, and Booker made the cut. Early proposals to open new charter schools and double enrollment at existing ones were not disclosed in the public hearings Booker promoted, Russakoff reported. Later, when the advisory school board voted against opening a slate of charter schools, Cerf, then Christie’s state schools superintendent, overruled them.
The plan encompassed the full menu of education reforms: Cami Anderson, the divisive Newark superintendent who took over the district, eventually replaced half of the district’s school principals. The district wrote a new contract with its teachers union, which included student performance in evaluating teachers, while providing teachers with a one-time but long-delayed pay increase.
Specific schools were targeted for a turnaround, with half of their teachers eventually replaced. By the 2015-’16 school year, 11 traditional schools and three charter schools were closed for records of poor performance. New schools, both traditional and charter, opened. Charter schools moved into empty public school spaces.
In 2014, Newark established an open enrollment system that allowed families to rank their preferred schools and have some choice in where their kids attended. Over the span of a few years, the entire school system had been remade.
“Sen. Booker did things very few mayors are willing to do. He intervened aggressively, knowing if you do that, you’re going to have all types of scars on your back,” says Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, who was in the thick of the Newark fight as a school board member and later ran for mayor. “You’re starting a political war.”
The Newark education reforms faced a fierce backlash
At first, the results of Booker’s experiment were mixed. Student achievement, as measured by test scores, dropped in Newark in the first few years after the reforms started to take effect, although some of the new charter schools had more promising numbers.
Meanwhile, the backlash Booker had predicted arrived quickly and persisted for years.
Teachers unions felt they had been targeted by Booker and Christie’s plan. Reformers believed seniority rules made it harder to get rid of bad teachers and to keep and promote younger, promising educators. The charter schools that Booker was eagerly promoting were not unionized workplaces, diminishing the ability of the unions to bargain on behalf of all the city’s teachers.
“The original goal wasn’t to reform education. That was the veil,” says Abeigon, the Newark teachers union president. “The original goal was to defang public teachers unions.”
The reformers pushed for provisions in a new collective bargaining agreement — extended learning, softening of tenure protections, new accountability metrics — that the unions felt were meant to undermine them. The teachers did ultimately overwhelmingly approve the new agreement in 2012, however, thanks in large part to $31 million in back pay that was included. Reformers eagerly cite that provision to push back against claims that they were going after the unions, though they will in the same breath accuse reform opponents of unsavory bullying tactics.
The teachers union was undeniably mobilized, showing up at every community event or town hall meeting. Press reports revealed that millions of dollars from the Zuckerberg gift were being spent on private consultants, adding to the feeling of an outsider takeover. When schools closed, principals were fired, and teaching staffs were replaced, the full breadth of the changes that Booker and his allies planned became clear — and many in the community were taken aback.
“This was based on a competitive model and a market theory that is just fundamentally flawed,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was intimately involved in the fight. “They basically defunded and enfeebled the neighborhood choices that people really wanted.”
Reformers acknowledge now that they did not adequately prepare Newark for what they were going to do. Booker planned for community town halls to discuss the upcoming changes, but, according to Russakoff’s reporting, event organizers were not told that the plans included closing failing schools and expanding charter schools.
“We needed to be upfront about the consequences of charter growth. We also needed to be prepared that that’s not going to make it quieter,” Anderson says. “We knew it was going to be noisy because of the politics of the status quo. But it’s not like Newark politics were quiet before I came to town.”
Others contend that closing schools and laying off teachers, even if necessary, was never going to be popular.
“My own personal hypothesis is that would not have decreased the degree of resistance,” Cerf says. “If you’re gonna do transformational change in a system that’s broken like this, you’re gonna piss some people off.”
Reformers saw the school closures and teachers layoffs as tearing out the weeds choking Newark education. Residents saw them as tearing up the foundations of a community. The optics of Wall Street-funded philanthropists taking control of a poor, majority-black district fed a narrative that moneyed white outsiders were covertly taking over Newark while padding private consultants’ pockets.
When charter schools moved into empty public school spaces, it added to the feeling that this was a kind of “colonization,” as Ras Baraka, the school principal and opposition leader who later became mayor, described it then.
Booker had a reputation at the time as a great communicator, a jovial Twitter presence who delighted in shoveling residents’ walkways during snowstorms. Even now, he’s presenting himself as somebody who can unite America. But the political record shows he didn’t sell the Newark reforms to his constituents. In April 2011, anti-reformers shockingly won two school board elections, an early down payment on the political price that would continue to be paid for years afterward.
As Christie got caught up in Bridgegate and Booker decided to run for Senate, Baraka ran to replace him as mayor in 2014 on a message of taking back the city’s schools. Independent groups supporting Baraka ran ads raising the ominous specter of outsiders taking over the city.
One ad warned: “They’re coming. From Wall Street. From Trenton ... Chris Christie’s allies and the Wall Street hedge fund types have an agenda. Shut down Newark public schools. Shut out parents. And destroy our schools for their personal profit.”
The state of Newark schools, 10 years after Booker’s crusade started
Nine years out, the Newark project — the signature achievement of presidential candidate Cory Booker — is remembered as a failure. But its real legacy is much more complicated.
The program (with minor adjustments) remains in place under Baraka’s mayorship, and researchers now have a few years of data to start estimating the effect it had on Newark’s students.
A study by Harvard professor Tom Kane and his colleagues, funded with a grant from Zuckerberg’s foundation, found math and reading achievement growth had dipped in the first few years. But English achievement in the 2015-’16 school year outpaced the growth rates from the years before Booker’s plan took effect. Math achievement growth rates had rebounded back to the same pre-reform levels.
I asked Kane directly if the Newark reforms had been worth it, given what he saw in the students’ performance. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” he told me. It would depend, he said, if the upward trend his team found in 2015-’16 continued.
Jesse Margolis, who runs an education analytics research firm and was originally contracted by Cerf to follow the reform efforts, has studied more recent data and says he continues to see improvement in both English and math.
By another metric he has studied, Newark used to be a below-average district compared to its socioeconomic peers and now ranks in the top 25 percent. Graduation rates have gone up throughout New Jersey, but the improvement in Newark has outpaced that of the state.
Any way you cut it, Margolis says, “the results of the school district have improved in a meaningful and substantial and important way.” He can’t say how much of that improvement is directly attributable to the Newark reforms, but nevertheless, there are strong data points in favor of the Booker program.
The most promising data doesn’t come from wholly disinterested parties. But both Kane and Margolis were reserved in bestowing too much credit on the reform project, and there have been other telling metrics, though not the kind you’ll find in a classroom, that suggest the overhaul has become more accepted by the city.
Though Baraka came into office railing against reform — and continues to call for a cap on charter schools enrollment, as Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall reported — most of the Booker program remains. That could change after the city finally reclaimed control of its schools last year, but it seems likely that many of the reforms Booker helped usher in are here to stay.
“There’s a difference between running for something and running something,” says Cerf, who worked closely with Baraka while he was in charge of the Newark schools.
Baraka and charter school advocates actually teamed up twice to run “unity tickets” in school board elections. There have been some smaller changes: For instance, extended learning has been rolled back. But charter enrollment has grown steadily, tripling since the reforms started, and the open enrollment program is still running.
That is the story reformers focus on, evidence of their vindication. “The results are the proof in the pudding,” Anderson says.
But the old public schools still have problems. This is another complicated tale — enrollment went down, the district’s legacy obligations are substantial, Christie kept state education funding flat for years — but the charters are a part of the equation.
Money follows the student under the New Jersey state education funding formula; for the 2016-’17 school year, the district transferred more than $240 million to charter schools, up from $60 million a decade ago, according to the charter-skeptical Education Law Center. The center’s experts described “a disparate funding system in which the [Newark’s traditional schools] have to contend with shrinking resources while the charter schools maintain funding levels from year to year.”
Charter enrollment has grown substantially, but more than half of Newark’s kids still attend traditional public schools. The traditional schools serve more English-language learners and students with learning disabilities, who cost more money to educate.
Per-pupil spending on regular instruction dropped by more than $1,000 from the 2008-’09 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, the law center estimated. Spending on professional development fell by more than $500 per student. The Newark district has also sold buildings, cut benefits, and raised taxes to cover its budget gap.
“If you look back at how spending has changed over this time period ... you are seeing significant reductions in spending in certain categories that are most meaningful for student achievement,” Danielle Farrie, the research director at the Education Law Center, told me.
This is the central contradiction of Newark: The charter sector has succeeded, and even a critic like Baraka can’t risk reversing that progress; many African-American families want the charters as an option for their kids. But the traditional schools, where most of the city’s kids still attend, have seen their finances undermined.
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 bipartisan, centrist, charter-centric education reform movement. It has started to look more like a last gasp.
“It’s become harder for mainstream Democrats to become pro-charter schools,” says Kevin Carey, the education policy director at the think tank New America.
In Boston, a Democratic city where the evidence seemed to clearly show that charter schools had improved education, voters summarily rejected a 2016 ballot initiative to expand them. In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike, pushing back against charter school expansions, with support from presidential hopefuls including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Booker pointed out in his statement to Vox that he’d been endorsed twice by the New Jersey Education Association in his Senate campaigns. In the Senate, he has authored the STRIVE Act, which would increase funding for teacher preparation programs, expand federal loan forgiveness for teachers, and provide additional assistance for people from low-income and underrepresented communities to get teacher certifications.
“I think if Booker was mayor today, he would have a very different view about charter schools and public schools than he did 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” Weingarten says. “This was done in a period of time when the Democrats were trying to act like mini Republicans. ... That strategy of education change did not work, and I think Booker is smart enough and reflective enough to actually see that.”
Democrats these days don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for challenging teachers unions, at a time when Republicans are pushing through right-to-work laws and teachers are going on strike, with abundant public support, to fight for fairer pay and better benefits. Support for charter schools among Democratic voters has dropped from nearly 50 percent earlier this decade to just 36 percent now, according to Education Next’s annual survey.
“I think the reform community both declared victory and got sick of the argument,” says Andy Rotherham, who worked on education policy under President Bill Clinton. “Things are pretty tribal right now. Newark was a microsystem of that.”
Booker can’t run from his history, and he isn’t trying to, recently telling the education news site the 74 that he’d “never seen such a disconnect between a popular understanding and the data.”
“I’m proud of my record; it’s not anything I need to defend. I believe we shouldn’t have one-size-fits-all education,” Booker told reporters when he launched his presidential campaign. “Local leaders should make decisions about what works best for them.”
It’s the same problem that the Newark reforms have always presented him: Cory Booker is proud of what he did. The challenge is convincing Democratic voters that he was right.