NEWARK, N.J. ― Presidential candidate Cory Booker likens himself to a civil rights icon when describing his previous work with Newark schools.
“I was like Malcolm X,” Booker, a senator from New Jersey, told an Iowa crowd in February of his time as Newark’s mayor. He went on to cite a quote he has used for nearly two decades to justify his centrist brand of education reform. “By any means necessary, my kids were going to get an education.”
But when Newark resident Lisa Douglas hears of the comparison, she cringes.
“For him to even say he considers himself a Malcolm X and then to not consider those who he would hurt in the process of going with this whole [school] choice … I don’t think he’s Malcolm X at all,” said the mother of three.
Newark Unified School District has undergone a massive overhaul in the nine years since Booker sat on a couch with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on the Oprah Winfrey Show and famously promised to turn Newark schools into a national model for school improvement. They went on to change the way teachers were evaluated, dramatically expand charter schools and revamp the city’s enrollment system. Booker and his allies describe the efforts as an unequivocal success, citing research that shows district gains in reading achievement and graduation rates and arguing criticism is misleading and shortsighted.
But many residents and stakeholders remember the reform effort for the acrimony it created and are ambivalent about its accomplishments.
HuffPost attended Newark school board and community meetings, spent time in neighborhood hangouts and interviewed 39 stakeholders, parents and community activists about Booker’s education legacy. Some Newark residents said they are mistrustful of the data that has come out about the district; they claim that potential gains have occurred in spite of the changes Booker spurred, not because of them. They remain angry and resentful of their former mayor, who they say handed their schools and children over to money-hungry consultants in the name of national recognition. Others are more positive or conflicted about the changes ― critical of what took place, while nonetheless embracing the shiny new charter schools that have come to their neighborhood.
Many of the people HuffPost spoke to said they resented the way the education reform efforts were implemented, sometimes even more than the changes themselves.
“It kind of polarized the city in terms of those who were pro- and anti-reform,” recalled Princess Fils-Aime, an assistant principal at a charter school, who spoke in a personal capacity. “It took us a while to get to a place where we could, as a city, agree upon the direction we wanted to take our schools.”
All the while, the changes Booker championed, like the proliferation of charter schools, have increasingly fallen out of favor among Democrats nationwide, putting the candidate in a politically tricky position. Booker’s record of support for charter school-centered reform policies is too long to run away from, but he is under pressure to differentiate himself from conservative figures like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with whom he once served on the board of an education nonprofit.
At a presidential candidate forum in August, Booker decried lax charter school laws in states like Michigan, emphasizing that the “the next president, and I plan on being that person, must focus on empowering public education.”
A History Of Failing Schools
By the time Booker became mayor of Newark in 2006, the city’s schools had been under state control for just over a decade following a takeover prompted by city fiscal mismanagement, corruption and poor achievement rates. The district was in dire need of improvement.
So in 2010, Booker and Christie, with the help of Zuckerberg, vowed to fix it. Zuckerberg agreed to donate $100 million to a no-holds-barred education reform effort run by the state in conjunction with his foundation. Booker would leverage Zuckerberg’s pledge to raise an additional $100 million from other donors.
The plan was to make “Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation,” Zuckerberg said during the gift’s announcement on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Some Newark parents were shocked to learn about the impending transformation of their children’s schools, hearing about the proposed reforms at the same time as the rest of the nation ― on television. But the lack of warning was by design, according to journalist Dale Russakoff, who has chronicled Zuckerberg’s gift and its aftermath in her book “The Prize.” An early proposal of Booker’s reforms called for a top-down process to be imposed on schools, without input from stakeholders that could slow down the process. The goal was to make real change, Booker promised, in part by making Newark the “charter school capital of the world.”
The new charter schools ― public schools that are privately operated ― were supposed to upend the stagnation and complacency that Booker and other reformers thought plagued traditional public schools, by introducing competition and bypassing the messy bureaucracy endemic in large school systems. Indeed, in Newark, existing charter schools had already been vastly outperforming their traditional public school counterparts.
But putting market-inspired education policies into practice in Newark’s gritty political environment involved messy and prosaic dealmaking. A serious chunk of Zuckerberg’s money ― $48 million ― ended up going toward a new teacher union contract that upped teacher pay in exchange for making it easier for principals to hire and fire them.
An even larger sum went to expanding charter schools, prompting a continued shift in student enrollment away from traditional public schools and toward charters. Enrollment in Newark schools had been dropping for years, based on a variety of factors, but by 2011, it dipped to a low. In response, appointed superintendent Cami Anderson oversaw budget cuts that prompted the layoffs of over 200 counselors, clerical workers, janitors and other support staff.
By 2013, Anderson announced plans to overhaul the district, in a project called One Newark. The plan was bold and complicated, designed to address enrollment declines, deteriorating facilities, budgetary constraints and demand for charters. It called for some schools to be shuttered, converted to charters, redesigned or given an influx of resources. It created a new, controversial district enrollment system in which students choose schools via a citywide lottery.
“Cory was courageous and brave and took his lumps in the realm of school reform.”
But some were again frustrated with the top-down nature of the changes. Community meetings had devolved into yelling matches as union members, in particular, mobilized their supporters against the school overhaul. Anderson, a white woman who was not from Newark, a city which is overwhelmingly of color, became the face of the reform effort and in turn, the greatest object of distrust.
The school closures put teachers and staff out of work, and they devastated residents who felt connected to their neighborhood public schools. Parents feared their kids would have to travel far distances to reach their schools, even crossing dangerous neighborhoods. They worried siblings accustomed to walking to school together would be sent to different schools, even as they relied on older kids to keep their children safe.
What began as simmering discontent exploded into pandemonium. Anderson had a brick thrown through her window and found a bag of feces left on her porch.
With the state’s backing, One Newark continued apace, but so did the protests.
The Reform Effort’s ‘Moral Leader’ Heads To Washington
Booker served as a fundraiser and public champion for the school reform effort from the beginning, letting Anderson and others manage implementation. Some of Booker’s critics say his rosy comments about the effort helped conceal the overhaul’s stumbles.
“Some people look at him as a cheerleader, but I look at him as an actor,” said a former district employee who liaised with Booker around reform efforts and asked to remain anonymous. “He will pretend things are great knowing damn well they’re not.”
As the Newark education overhaul went from national media darling to public relations debacle, Booker set his sights on sunnier horizons. After New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg died in June 2013, Booker announced he would run for the seat. By the time that opposition to Anderson’s new One Newark plan exploded, Booker had effectively put the city’s education troubles in his rearview mirror.
Booker’s detractors believe his decision as mayor to play an active role in education policies was self-interested. They argue that he was willing to share in the publicity for the splashy rollout of the plan with Winfrey, but happier to make himself scarce when the project was no longer politically beneficial.
“Booker wanted to be able to have on his paperwork that he turned Newark into another New Orleans,” said Leah Owens, a former Newark school board member, referring to the wholesale transformation of New Orleans’ school system from traditional public schools to charter schools.
Booker’s sudden absence complicated the rollout of One Newark. A plan that would have been controversial under any circumstances suddenly lost one of its key defenders, and the special election held for Booker’s seat became a referendum on the education overhaul. Former public school principal Ras Baraka ― who had campaigned against charter schools and Booker’s brand of reform ― defeated Shavar Jeffries, a Booker ally and former head of the Newark advisory school board, in a landslide.
The election heightened community tension, Anderson said. Though she supported Booker and his decision to run for Senate, it made for unfortunate timing.
“Had Booker remained the spiritual and moral leader, I think we would have had pushback, there’s no question… but I think the tone and tenor of pushback would have been different,” Anderson said.
Education reformers continue to fight against the idea that these changes were as unpopular as they seemed ― arguing unions fanned a fire of negativity. They also say that their reforms worked. A Harvard study funded by the Zuckerberg foundation shows that after initial dips, reading achievement has improved in Newark schools. Student enrollment in all public schools has seen an uptick after years of decline. Newark’s charters are excelling, according to studies from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.
Chris Cerf, who helped design the district overhaul with Booker and went on to serve as Newark’s superintendent after Anderson resigned in 2015, remains unapologetic about the district’s tactics and the reaction it provoked, maintaining that changing such an entrenched system was always going to be bitter.
“Change has casualties and change often occurs in an environment of high-decibel rhetoric,” said Cerf, who previously served as the New Jersey education commissioner. “There was a little bit of showboating … around Oprah for example, and in retrospect, I wish we hadn’t done that.”
But overall, Cerf said, “Cory was courageous and brave and took his lumps in the realm of school reform.”
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, on the other hand, says he has yet to see “anything positive” come out of the changes, noting, “I wasn’t a Wall Street investor.”
“Any improvement has been based on the dedication of the teaching staff and has nothing to do with the education reformers,” he said.
A Community Takes Stock
During a recent sunny afternoon at Independence Park in the Ironbound district of Newark, parents pushed their children on swings and watched them as they tackled the jungle gym.
It’s a working-class neighborhood populated primarily by Portuguese, Latin American and Spanish immigrants and their relatives, and is located in the East Ward, one of the city’s richer neighborhoods. It boasts a vibrant economy and has become a recent hotspot for real estate developers.
The most cataclysmic aspects of the reforms spared this neighborhood. And on this day, three residents say they just wish more charter schools had opened.
“I would send her to charter school, but there’s no space,” Pedro Gaeote said of his elementary-aged daughter.
Lucianna Duarte, a recent high school graduate who attended one of the district’s citywide magnet programs, recalls the unrest that the reforms spurred. Her teachers encouraged her and other students to take to the streets in protest. But other than that, she wasn’t impacted by the upheaval, and she certainly didn’t see the fruits of Zuckerberg’s philanthropy improve her schools, she says.
“I didn’t see it in action in the schools I was going to,” she said.
Across town, emotions still run high.
After a public safety meeting the West Ward neighborhood of Newark, residents expressed deep reservations about charter schools ― even if they chose to send their children to one and praised these schools’ educational superiority.
The West Ward, which is mostly Black and Latino, was heavily impacted by school closures, consolidation and charters during Booker’s mayoral reign. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education concluded African American students were disproportionately impacted by school closures during that time, and therefore racially discriminated against.
“The reality is people were heard and not listened to.”
Marie, a former teacher in the district who asked to be referenced by her middle name for privacy reasons, lost her job when her school was converted to a charter.
The 57-year-old feels like district leaders pushed their agenda at the expense of the most vulnerable students and the community members who had worked for years to make their neighborhoods better. Ultimately, the children with the most engaged parents moved to charter schools, while she and her hardworking peers served the hardest students with less.
“Those in authority had a mission, and they stuck to it, and it wasn’t about listening to parents or teachers,” Marie said. “[Booker] had a charter school agenda, period.”
Marie said she was bitter but has since moved on, noting that she now understands “there were reasons for the decisions that were made that will hopefully help the city long term.” She supposes that local discourse around charter schools has evolved a bit too, noting that, “now it’s your sister, your niece, your brother that’s going to a charter school, so you can’t keep speaking ill.”
Chuckie Shepherd, a retired home renovator raising three children in Newark’s West Ward, exemplifies the ambivalence that many city residents have about the explosion of charter school growth.
He switched his three children to charter schools after two of them were bullied in district schools. He found the charter schools a “little more secure.”
But he laments the scale of charter school growth, which he hypothesizes were part of a scheme to pad the coffers of a select few, rather than to benefit all students.
“Instead of having all these charter schools, [Booker] could have had one or two,” he said. “How many charter schools you got all over the place now?”
Even community members who were sympathetic to efforts to restructure Newark’s schools admit that community engagement efforts fell short.
“A lot of stuff could have been avoided if they had taken a little more time to do it right in terms of community engagement … They didn’t,” said Richard Cammarieri, a veteran anti-poverty advocate who works at a Newark nonprofit. “They were trying to do things quickly rather than do it as well as possible.”
Anderson says there was a comprehensive community engagement effort, though a small but well-organized group of detractors made authentic engagement more difficult. On a day-to-day basis, she says she generally heard from a range of everyday community members, including from those who wanted her to move fast.
The former district employee maintains that there was extensive community engagement. It’s just that residents’ concerns were ignored. This employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said Newark leaders treated kids as dollar signs, with callous indifference to their actual success or well-being. After leaving the job, this employee put their kids in private schools, out of fear that leaders in their children’s public schools had similar attitudes to the ones in Newark.
“The reality is people were heard and not listened to,” the former employee said. “It was like, we hear what you want, but we know better, and you’re not going to get what you want.”
A Mayor’s Legacy
When residents and leaders are asked who they blame for the education reform effort’s shortcomings, the reaction is mixed. Some blame Christie. Others point to Booker, or Cerf, the architect of the program. While Anderson was the subject of vicious protests as superintendent, the Newark teachers union president John Abeigon believes she “was the fall guy.”
Now, as Booker runs for president, some residents are looking at him with suspicion. Many residents who spoke to HuffPost have a more favorable view of Baraka, Booker’s successor, even though he has maintained many of the changes Booker’s administration spearheaded because they see him as part of the community. Booker, meanwhile, has been plagued by claims that he’s an outsider since he first ran for city council in 1998. (Baraka declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
On the campaign trail, Booker has both embraced and shied away from his education record. He boasts about improvements in Newark schools, but does not employ terms like “charter schools” and “school choice” frequently, preferring instead to hint at it through comments disavowing “one-size-fits-all education.” When pressed at an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Forum in August to clarify whether he still supports charter schools, Booker did not answer directly. Instead he condemned Republican-backed schemes to allow unregulated charter schools to flourish.
He’s also backed away from his onetime support of vouchers, a policy that allows parents to send their kids to private school using public funding, which many education activists see as an effort to privatize public education. Booker supported vouchers while serving on the Newark city council from 1998 to 2002. When asked about it in a live-streamed question-and-answer session with the Working Families Party last week, he spoke only about his record as mayor, which did not include vouchers.
“We didn’t support vouchers. That is a lie ― and not one of the strategies we pursued,” he replied. “What we pursued was a system of public education that was inclusive, that had equity and for every kid to have an opportunity to go to a great school system.”
HuffPost asked Booker’s campaign a number of questions about his education record in Newark and criticisms of his handling of the reforms.
Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the campaign, provided a broad statement that mirrored Booker’s public defenses of his record. She did not rebut specific criticisms or clarify Booker’s stance on private-school vouchers.
“No matter what the critics and cynics say, the work Cory and others did to improve and support Newark’s public schools is a success story: student achievement is increasing, a higher percentage of kids are graduating, test scores are up, and more Newark children are going to college,” she said.