Politics & Policy

Cory Booker Turns on His One-Time Ally, Betsy DeVos

Cory Booker (Reuters photo: Eduardo Munoz)
Booker has suddenly discovered that he’s against school choice after a career spent promoting it.
 

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Cory Booker should think about consulting a physician. He seems to be suffering a severe case of amnesia.

Last month, Booker became the first senator in history to testify against a colleague in a Cabinet confirmation hearing — in this case, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general. When he was not holding back righteous tears, Booker warned that Sessions would fail to “aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all,” and that he would not “bring hope and healing to our country.” Besides being a novel assessment of the duties of an attorney general, Booker’s testimony was somewhat undermined by his own comments from eleven months earlier, when he declared himself “blessed and honored to have partnered with Senator Sessions” to award the Congressional Gold Medal to participants in the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

This week, Senator Booker apparently had another memory lapse.

On Tuesday, New Jersey’s junior senator cast his vote against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. “I’m frustrated and deeply saddened” by DeVos’s confirmation, Booker wrote on Facebook, continuing mournfully:

Somewhere in America, right now, there is a child who is wondering if this country stands up for them. They are probably enduring some things I never had to endure. They are probably worried about their safety. They are probably being put in a situation where they are questioning their worth. They probably feel alone and isolated. . . . 

To all those worried about their civil rights, about having equal access and opportunity to an education, please know: even if Betsy DeVos doesn’t see it as her role as a federal leader to work for your rights, equality or freedom from bullying or harassment, know that I and many others will always fight for you.

Booker’s concerns about DeVos are odd — considering that he’s spent much of his career as an ardent school-choice advocate, and a supporter of . . . Betsy DeVos.

In 2006, Booker was elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city and home to its largest school system, which currently serves more than 35,000 students. In July 1995, the state had taken control of Newark’s public schools, citing gross malpractice. State officials published a 1,700-page report detailing questionable expenditures, collapsing facilities, dismal student performance, and more — in short, a long chronicle of corruption and mismanagement. Ten years on, the situation had improved little, if at all.

Booker saw an opportunity in the school-choice movement. He encouraged using taxpayer funds to establish and strengthen already-existing public charter schools, as well as private and religious schools, and traveled the country soliciting help. He was a powerful advocate. In early 2009, Oprah Winfrey gave more than $1.5 million to five local nonprofits, among them a public charter school and a Catholic school; a year and a half later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave the school system an extraordinary $100 million gift. Republican governor Chris Christie, finding in Booker’s education policy much to like, permitted the mayor more control over Newark’s school system than the state had permitted his predecessors.

Although Booker’s efforts met with aggressive resistance from certain quarters, many Newark residents seized on the opportunity to exit the city’s traditional public schools. Currently, 14,000 students are enrolled in the city’s 20 charter schools, and enrollment has tripled in the last five years. According to a report from the Newark Education Success Board (a nine-member panel created by Christie and current Newark mayor Ras Baraka), published in August, 42 percent of Newark families selected a charter school as their first choice. A 2013 poll of 500 Newark residents found that 71 percent favored expanding the city’s charter-school system.

Predictably, all of this incensed — and continues to rankle — the Newark Teachers Union, which during Booker’s 2010 reelection bid backed his unsuccessful opponent. (They have found a friendlier ear in Baraka, a fierce charter-school opponent.) Commenting on Booker’s vote against DeVos, union president John Abeignon said he was “kind of surprised,” adding: “He’s a strong advocate for school choice,” Abeigon said. “We never saw him much as a supporter of traditional public schools and don’t see him as one now.”

Until this week, Booker might have described himself similarly. In fact, he was unequivocal about his position during his second mayoral term:

I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options, because I benefited from my parents having options. And when people tell me they’re against school choice, whether it’s the Opportunity Scholarship Act or charter schools, I look at them and say: “As soon as you’re telling me you’re willing to send your kid to a failing school in my city, or in Camden or Trenton, then I’ll be with you.” . . . I am going to fight for the freedom and the liberty and the choice and the options of my people, in the same way you will defend that right for yourself.

As it happens, those remarks were delivered in 2012, at a conference of the American Federation for Children — the school-reform group founded, and at the time chaired, by Betsy DeVos. That was not Booker’s only association with the group. He spoke to AFC’s Policy Summit just last year.

The senator is planning a run for the presidency in 2020, and he needs to make nice with the teachers’ unions.

How it is that the woman Cory Booker viewed as an ally less than a year ago is now a threat to children’s “safety” is no particular mystery. The senator is planning a run for the presidency in 2020, and he needs to make nice with the teachers’ unions, whose outsized influence in the Democratic party is the only plausible explanation for the unprecedented anathema heaped on DeVos since her nomination was announced. (Indeed, even two union-reliant Republicans — Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins — bowed to the unions’ demands.)

That his opposition to DeVos was out of keeping with his own education-policy vision Booker rationalized away by repairing to that all-purpose excuse, “civil rights.” In fact, school choice is disproportionately popular among minority groups. AFC surveyed 1,100 likely voters in January 2016: 70 percent supported school choice, defined as “giv[ing] parents the right to use the tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which better serves their needs.” Among African Americans and Latinos, the number was 76 percent. A poll commissioned last year by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed similar levels of support.

Having concerned himself with these issues for some time, Booker is no doubt aware of these facts, and he didn’t forget them on Tuesday. He ignored them, and many of his constituents, and his principles. Booker’s lamentations in the wake of the vote are so much theater. What he did this week, he didn’t do for the kids.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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