There are a lot of myths surrounding Senator Cory Booker and charter schools during his time as an elected official in Newark—both as a city councilman and as mayor—but as someone who worked with him, it’s no surprise to me that he published a supportive op-ed in the New York Times last week.
When Cory Booker was elected to the Newark City Council in 1998, the city was three years into state operation of our entire school system. The state took over the city’s school system after over 40 years of chronic corruption, mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance, and horrible student outcomes—conditions chronicled in the must-read Newark exposé book by Jean Anyon “Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform.” A system my own district school teacher told my mother to flee from if she had the means and opportunity in the late 70s.
Many working-class Newark residents look to its local elected leaders for many needs clearly outside of the power and constitutional responsibilities of their respective offices—par for the course in a city with a 30 percent poverty rate, a 20 percent homeownership rate, and similarly low percent of the population with college degrees. The same was true about overhauling our educational system, despite our lack of control at the city level.
While Councilman Booker could not do much in his position, we all recognized that—if we won municipal seats—the people would demand that we do everything possible to turn the ship around despite our lack of direct power. We found council meetings have just as many residents pleading for help on education as they do about crime and public safety. In that context, Mayor Booker and his council allies committed to doing whatever it took to make change for as many as possible, as quickly as possible, with the resources available.
Public charter schools were our answer.
Mayor Booker invested in high-quality public charter schools with track records of educating all kids—no matter their zip code—and set out to replicate and expand them. He fought to close poor-performing schools, no matter how politically connected they may have been. He not only used a $100 million donation from Facebook to pursue this work, he also raised the matching $100 million from private philanthropy and invested in what was heralded by top union leader Randi Weingarten as the future of public school teacher contracts for the nation because of its investment in teacher development, compensation, and merit pay.
And he did this while pushing against an entrenched status quo protecting an embedded education bureaucracy that wasn’t putting students first.
The results speak for themselves. A 2017 Center for Education Policy Research report—the first real quantitative review of Newark’s reforms—found students in both traditional and charter schools made larger gains in English in 2016 than in 2011. Nearly two-thirds of the gains derived from more students moving to better schools largely because their low-performing schools closed or they enrolled in a charter school. Another 2019 report showed that academic performance in New Jersey’s biggest city saw massive improvements beginning in 2006 and significant growth over a 12-year period.
And that school I attended where my teacher told my mother to flee in the 70s has posted impressive student scores and was profiled this year on the Today Show for its academic gains. Now that’s impressive.
No matter how you look at what happened in public education reform in Newark, one cannot deny the progress from 2006 to today—and those results are essential when it comes to educating every student.
Ron Rice, Jr., is the senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.. Ron worked with Sen. Booker as a city reform activist, a political ally and council candidate/member of the Booker Team for Newark campaign in 2002, 2006, and 2010, and a member of the Newark Municipal Council that oversaw his administration for seven years.