Long-Time School Privatizer, Cory Booker Enters 2020 Race as Democratic Presidential Contender

Public education policy is not usually something on which Presidential candidates have a solid record. They make their cases on foreign, economic, and environmental policy. The future of public schools makes it into the Party platforms but rarely becomes a candidate’s make-or-break issue.

However, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who, last Friday, declared himself a Democratic candidate for President in 2020, has a long record of projects that threaten public education.  Cory Booker has been a leader in the effort to privatize public education for nearly two decades.

Most recently as mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006-2013, he collaborated with New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie on an idea for a charter school transformation for the city’s schools. In her 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff summarizes the Booker-Christie scheme: “One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’ The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data and accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.” (The Prize, pp. 20-21) Booker was the salesman who enticed Mark Zuckerberg to pay for it all.  The plan was launched in celebrity fashion when Zuckerberg presented a check for $100 million to Christie and Booker on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Even as Russakoff traces the eventual four-year failure of their scheme, her book’s topic is less about school reform than about the hubris of Cory Booker and the cruel arrogance of Chris Christie. She concludes: “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national ‘proof point’ in Newark. There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.” (The Prize, pp. 209-201)

The failed Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg experiment in Newark was not, however, Cory Booker’s first venture in promoting himself by collaborating with school privatizers. Back in 2002, Booker made a name for himself as an advocate for the nation’s first city-wide private school tuition voucher program, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and underwritten by the far-right Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Here is what The Black Commentator‘s Glen Ford wrote about Cory Booker back in the spring of 2002, when Booker made his first (unsuccessful) bid to become mayor of Newark: “The billionaires who fund the American Hard Right are salivating over the prospect of seizing control of City Hall in Newark, New Jersey, May 14. They have found their champion: Cory Booker, Black mayoral candidate from the city’s Central Ward, a cynical pretender who attempts to position himself as the common people’s defender while locked in the deep embrace of institutes and foundations that bankroll virtually every assault on social and economic justice in America…  Booker owes his growing national prominence to this crowd…. Booker’s anointment as a prince in the Hard Right pantheon is based on his support of public vouchers for private schools. This ‘movement,’ the creation of right-wing paymasters like the Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, and the Walton Family Foundation, Bentonville, Arkansas, hopes to drive a wedge between urban Blacks and the teachers unions… Booker is the Right’s eager ally.”

By 2002, the far-right Bradley Foundation had underwritten a new organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), and Cory Booker had joined its board. Ford describes the BAEO: “The Black Alliance for Educational Options has no life independent of Bradley and… the Walton Foundation…. In a December 2001 report… People for the American Way (PFAW) asked, rhetorically, is the BAEO a ‘Community Voice or Captive of the Right?'”

BAEO was founded by Dr. Howard Fuller, the father of the Milwaukee Voucher Program. Ford continues: “By PFAW’s estimate, Fuller’s BAEO has received $1.7 million from Bradley since June of 2001… The Walton Foundation came up with $900,000 in seed money. Booker… journeyed to Milwaukee to attend a BAEO ‘symposium’ subsidized by $125,000 from Bradley and hosted by Fuller’s Bradley-funded Institute for the Transformation of Learning….”

Back in 2002, Ford summarized the long political strategy of the school privatizers who launched the Milwaukee voucher program: “Although the overwhelming majority of the students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher ‘choice’ program are minorities… critics universally view it as a stalking horse to eventually subsidize all private schools everywhere. In Milwaukee and the country at large, the vast bulk of private school students are white, from above-average income families.  If these schools were subsidized, thus making them more attractive and accessible to the entire universe of voting families, the fate of public education would be sealed. (Teachers unions would also become an endangered species in the process—the immediate political goal of the right.)”

Why would the Bradley Foundation invest so much in courting Cory Booker? Ford explains:  “Perhaps it is because they have no other choice. The nation’s big cities are largely Black and brown and, without legitimacy among African American voters, the Right will get nowhere in its bid to break what’s left of the Democratic Party’s urban coalition.”

Booker’s involvement with voucher supporters has also been quite recent including work with Betsy DeVos and her pet cause, the American Federation for Children.  Last week, Chalkbeat‘s Patrick Wall and Matt Barnum reported: “Booker served with DeVos on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice (now known as the American Federation for Children Growth Fund). He also spoke at gatherings of the American Federation for Children, an organization DeVos chaired, in 2012 and again in 2016.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate for President in 2020, doesn’t talk much today about his involvement with the Black Alliance for Educational Options or his support for private school tuition vouchers in Milwaukee.  Neither does he talk about the more recent, misguided Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg charter school initiative in Newark or other work with organizations whose mission is the promotion of a privatized education marketplace.

As Booker runs for President in 2020, however, I hope people everywhere will demand to know how he plans to support the public schoolteachers who have been striking all year because they are disgusted with the despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay that have resulted from a decade of tax cuts along with the sucking away of public school funding to privatized vouchers and charters.

The future of public education is at stake, and Cory Booker’s willingness over the years to support all forms of school privatization should worry voters.