As a presidential candidate, Senator Cory Booker took a multi-pronged approach to addressing racial inequity in education: calling to triple Title I funding and replicating the best practices at high-quality charter schools, hoping their expansion could serve communities on an even larger scale.
The New Jersey Democrat also proposed overhauling the Federal Charter School Program, not eliminating it, as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for. His plan for the overhaul encouraged targeted spending for the charter schools that already exist—a middle road between expanding for-profit charter schools and ending their federal funding entirely.
Booker’s ideas for how to best address equity and opportunity in education for black families, particularly those who are low-income, is part of the civil rights discussion we need to have. This will be all the more difficult now that he’s left the 2020 race. Because if the checkered history of education reform shows us anything, it’s that this discussion must be had with black people and not for black people.
In a November 2019 op-ed in The New York Times, Booker mentioned a parent who came to him for help with removing her child from her local public school district and enrolling them in a private school. Charter schools, for all their faults, can provide an option for families who are unable to relocate or afford a private school for their child.
[Black parents’] allegiance wasn’t to charter schools or public schools per se; it was to the school which would educate their children best and keep them safe.
According to a pro-charter advocacy group’s poll among black Democratic voters, 58 percent expressed favorable opinions of charter schools; according to a pro-reform poll, 46 percent of black people, regardless of how they vote, support the formation of charter schools.
While these poll results should be taken with a grain of salt, they underscore that black parents want to place their children where they will receive the best education possible.
I spoke with black parents regularly when I taught at charter schools in Booker’s home state of New Jersey. Their allegiance wasn’t to charter schools or public schools per se; it was to the school which would educate their children best and keep them safe. The honest truth is that the black parents I engaged with had problems with the education system as a whole.
All parents, regardless of skin color, desire the same thing. But the long history of educational disparity must caution us to consider the implications of racist policies in the lives of black people.
For black families, income inequality plays as much a part in where their children attend school as the quality of the school districts they’re zoned for. Many low-income families may be limited to the educational options of their neighborhood; those options are few. Racist public policies that forged racial segregation in cities throughout the country are to blame.
The relationship between black America and education in America is more complex and nuanced than simply being for or against one set of schools over another. If you ask black parents, they’ll tell you that they’re advocates for their children over any school. School loyalty only goes as far as a school’s ability to provide their child a quality education while reaffirming their identities as black children.
No matter where black parents send their children to school, they know there are tradeoffs involved.
Our challenge, in education as in all things, is to match our progressive ideals with pragmatic policy. The sad reality is that our “democracy” penalizes the poor over the privileged for attempting to provide their child with the best educational opportunities.
Booker’s education platform was an attempt to position himself as a champion in this matter. However, his record fell short of his campaign rhetoric.
The optics of a partnership with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million to Newark public schools in 2010, didn’t look good then and it looks even worse now. Maybe, as Newark’s mayor, Booker was playing the hand he was dealt—a district under the control of the state. But does that excuse his close relationship to Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?
Whatever it was, what happened in Newark was similar to what I’ve previously reported about what has happened in Camden: school closures, teacher layoffs, and disgruntled residents.
Certainly his ties to DeVos aided his efforts as Newark’s mayor. Booker believed that, under his leadership, education quality improved for black children. However, during his term as mayor, black teachers lost their jobs “en masse.” Traditionally, and in New Jersey specifically, public schools employ higher percentages of black teachers than charter schools. As I’ve written, research shows black teachers have a positive impact on black student’s achievement.
In Newark, residents were so disgruntled that they decisively elected Ras Baraka, an opponent to Booker’s initiatives who campaigned on taking Newark back from outsiders, as mayor.
But the reason black and brown people experience poor educational outcomes is racist public policy in all facets of American society. To isolate public schools as the problem without accounting for housing policy, income inequality, and the prison industrial complex is a deeply flawed approach.
While Booker dropped out of the 2020 race due to lack of funding, the other charter school proponent in the race, former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has unlimited funds.
Recently, Bloomberg remarked to the NAACP, “Want to reduce poverty? Education. Want to reduce crime? Education. Want to reduce homelessness? Education. Want to reduce income inequality? Education. And the list goes on.” He’s wrong.
To isolate public schools as the problem without accounting for housing policy, income inequality, and the prison industrial complex is a deeply flawed approach.
Reducing, if not eliminating, crime, poverty, and income inequality means replacing racist public policies with antiracist ones, just as Bloomberg’s successor did when he finally ended the former mayor’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy. You can put any kind of school you’d like in low-income neighborhoods, but if you fail to deal with the racism that created the conditions of those neighborhoods, then you will fail to transform those communities.
Whatever Bloomberg felt he did to improve education, his efforts to end poverty weren’t helped by enforcing racist policies like stop-and-frisk. Similarly, as mayor of Newark, whatever Booker felt he did to improve education, his efforts to end poverty weren’t helped by overseeing the reduction of black teachers and increasing the number of charter schools.
But what Booker did provide was a bridge. His proposals didn’t match his track record as mayor. But in Booker’s world, traditional public schools and charter schools co-exist, so it made sense for him to seek compromise. The looming question for black parents, and us all, is can these schools coexist with the best interests of black children in mind?
Our aim shouldn’t be to simply educate black children in spite of their communities. Our aim must be to educate black children and actively fight against the racism that impacts low-income communities of color, both inside and outside of the classroom.