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Est. April 5, 2002
March 07, 2019 - Issue 779

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Sen. Cory Booker
School Choice

"It is difficult to see how Booker overcomes Harris in the
black community when so many of black professional
women are teachers and public school administrators and
have been savaged by his school choice policies.  And their
white counterparts are also being turned off by his
past record of assaults on public education."

Sen. Cory Booker is in a bit of a quandary as he pursues the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Although heralded as an early favorite and a rising star among more than a dozen hopefuls, his campaign is yet to catch fire. Current polls rank Booker in the mid to low single digits as the field of candidates continues to expand. Previously a media darling, his presumed base of support among teachers, progressives, and African Americans, has not revealed itself and is currently dwindling.

Teachers and progressives are quickly becoming aware of Booker’s past, rabid support of school choice—vouchers, corporate charter schools, and other forms of public school privatization—in the aftermath of the recent strikes in West Virginia, California (2), and Colorado. In addition, there are strike threats in numerous other states as conservative state legislators, funded by corporate education reformers who also fund Booker, are attempting to privatize K-12 public education and to strip teachers of their health care and pension benefits.

His longstanding advocacy and alliances with the Cartel of corporate education reform advocates is now coming to light as Democrats are being forced by their voters to take a stand in support of public education. The midterms made a strong statement that no 2020 presidential candidate could survive the nomination gauntlet unless s/he first disavowed support for privatization remedies for the challenges in K-12 public education.

Teachers and their national, state, and local union affiliates have become unyielding on these issues unlike the tap on the hand that the National Education Association gave Hillary Clinton when she praised charter schools at a campaign stop in Iowa in 2016. No serious 2020 Democratic candidate will make such a statement even though many have previously voted for charter school legislation. Thus Booker is in a political conundrum. He has been in bed throughout his political career with and has taken hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from school choice advocates. Therefore, he is finding it difficult to extricate himself from the school choice morass.

While Mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, Booker crawled into bed with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and conducted an effective school choice road show. In 2010, the two of them, with an assist from media magnate Oprah Winfrey, were able to scam $100 million from the billionaire Facebook mogul, Mark Zuckerberg, to allegedly reform the Newark Public Schools (NPS). After years of patronage payouts and payments to political cronies, NPS has little to show for this investment. (However, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla, did learn how not to be hustled again. They now maintain firm, personal oversight over their educational investments in low-wealth school districts.)

After this debacle, Booker moved on to the U.S. Senate in 2013 where he continued to be a quieter gladiator for school choice. He did not encounter any exposure until 2016 when he was forced to vote against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos during her vetting process to become Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. But he cast his no vote only after he was assured that DeVos had acquired the necessary votes to be approved by the U.S. Senate. Booker was able to continue flying under the radar from the larger public.

But now, the “chickens are coming home to roost.” With the political colonoscopy that all presidential candidates receive, his record is being more carefully examined. Booker has been careful to advance his bona fides for teachers and public education, telling BuzzFeed that "Our teachers are ridiculously underpaid in America," …. I'm going to run the boldest pro–public school [campaign] there is." But these statements do not square with his previous promotion of school choice and attacks on teachers.

Booker also has to answer to progressives and African Americans for his positions. Appearing on the Breakfast Club, a popular black radio show with the host Charlamagne the God, Booker was asked to give specifics about his agenda for African Americans. He responded with trickle–down approaches for addressing the social and economic problems in the black community and was challenged about having more specific strategies for LGBTQ groups. Although Obama was given a pass on these issues in 2008, the black community will not accept such a response this time around as the novelty of a serious black presidential contender has passed.

But perhaps Booker’s biggest barrier to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is his fellow Sen. Kamala Harris, an African and Indian American female, who has a strong and passionate base among black women. She is a graduate of historically black Howard University, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a premier African American sorority with chapters in the 50 states for nearly four decades. Harris has a built-in base which she is aggressively cultivating. The sorority will be a major factor in turning out the vote in South Carolina, where blacks make up the majority of Democratic primary voters, and to a lesser extent in Iowa, two of the first three primary contests.

It is difficult to see how Booker overcomes Harris in the black community when so many of black professional women are teachers and public school administrators and have been savaged by his school choice policies. And their white counterparts are also being turned off by his past record of assaults on public education.

Furthermore, Booker has other formidable opponents in Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. Presently Harris and Warren are ahead of him in presidential polls and Klobuchar is close behind. It is early and things could change for Booker, but he has a real uphill battle with teachers and in black and progressive communities as his campaign unfolds. He will have to answer for his betrayal of black educators, black children, the larger black community, teachers, unions, and progressives as he pursues the White House. We will keep you up to date.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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