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Commentary By Marcus A. Winters

Cory Booker Goes Down Fighting

Education, Cities Pre K-12

The former Newark mayor refused to bow to teachers unions.

You’ve got to hand it to Sen. Cory Booker. The former mayor of Newark, N.J., refused to be bullied when it comes to charter schools. That earned him the ire of teachers unions and contributed to the failure of his presidential candidacy. Anti-school-choice lobbyists were never going to forgive him for saying at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that they had “tarred and feathered” him for supporting charters.

Never mind that, as he wrote in a recent op-ed, Newark’s citywide graduation rate “rose to 77% in 2018 from just above 50% a decade ago” thanks to the charter-school network schools he helped create. Newark, he added, “is ranked the No. 1 city in America for ‘beat the odds’ high-poverty, high-performance schools by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.”

The growth of charter schools has tapered off as teachers unions have “tarred and feathered” Democrats like Mr. Booker. It wasn’t long ago that President Obama used federal dollars to encourage charter schools. Nearly all of today’s Democratic presidential candidates oppose charter-school expansion.

Even after steady growth, charter schools enroll only about 6% of public-school students nationwide. But that share is much higher in large urban school systems such as New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, Boston and Newark.

Those urban areas are where parent support for charter schools is highest, and where pressure to stop their growth is strongest. Denver’s new school-board majority wants to stop new charters. Massachusetts voters in 2016 overwhelmingly defeated a referendum that would have allowed charter schools to expand.

In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, I find that attending a Newark charter school that participates in the city’s common enrollment system leads to large improvements in math and reading scores. The benefits are especially pronounced for students who attend a charter school run by either the KIPP or Uncommon Public Schools network, which together account for half the city’s charter-school enrollment. These national networks employ models that focus on high expectations for both academic performance and student behavior. Researchers have found similar results in Boston and Denver.

That’s significant because, thanks largely to a $100 million gift from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, Newark’s charter schools are among the most extensive and inventive in the nation, enrolling about a third of the city’s roughly 55,000 public-school students. Yet Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and district Superintendent Roger León have called for halting or even reversing the expansion of the city’s charter schools.

Charter schools shouldn’t overtake urban public-school systems. But policy makers should consider charter schools as one public education option available to parents. It’s counterproductive to pit charter schools against traditional public schools. 

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an associate professor at Boston University, and author of the new report, “Charter Schools in Newark: The Effect on Student Test Scores.” Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal