Home Is Where the Heart Is: Can Cory Booker Save Newark's Schools?

By Skinner, David | Education Next, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Home Is Where the Heart Is: Can Cory Booker Save Newark's Schools?


Skinner, David, Education Next


It's April 9 and the Mediterranean Manor is rocking. As a large bus outside the downtown Newark reception hall cranks out B-list disco hits, hundreds of low rollers coming to the $50-a-plate Cory Booker fundraiser inch through a maze of velvet rope to sign in and pass before a pair of unidentified "consultants" standing at the door with a television camera. When asked by the campaign, "Who are you guys?" they just answer, "Security."

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Inside, scores of waiters and busboys are setting up the buffets of macaroni salad, barbecued chicken, yellow rice, and other delectables. Within an hour the place is jammed well beyond capacity with supporters of Booker's mayoral bid lucklessly searching for open seats. Tables of elderly black matrons in their Sunday finest buzz with neighborhood gossip, while just a few feet away union reps pass the inexpensive red wine to their wives, and elsewhere unreserved tables of strangers make nice with college students, entrepreneurs, government workers--white, black, and Hispanic--all bonding over their common hopes for the city.

It seems more like a wedding banquet than a fundraiser, especially since the event will actually lose money. But this is Newark, New Jersey, once called "The Worst American City," a city that has lost 36 percent of its population since 1930 (from 442,000 to 280,000) and is now more than half black and nearly 40 percent poor. It's a city, reported the New York Times, where "budgeting is a Rube Goldberg morass with a deficit looming," and where the school system, the state's largest, with 43,000 students, was so bad that it was taken over by the state more than a decade ago. Today the schools are still a mess, with 70 percent of 11th graders and 65 percent of 8th graders unable to pass the state's math tests. This is the Newark that Booker says needs more policing, more comprehensive child-welfare policies, school vouchers, and more charter schools.

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Supporting charters was a relatively safe bet. Although the number of charters in New Jersey was declining at the end of the 1990s, due in part to the state takeover, the number in Newark was growing, to 10. In fact, according to a 2003 Rutgers University report, "Newark's charter movement has flourished." Today, 12 of the state's 55 charter schools are in Newark.

Booker's support for vouchers was not so assured. Indeed, he now says that vouchers are not a key part of his education plan. Still, he has not ruled them out. "My determination is to reform the public school system," said candidate Booker, who was opposed by the state's powerful teachers union, with 192,272 members, in part because of his support of vouchers. For many of the same reasons, state senator and mayoral opponent Ronald Rice called Booker a proxy for "ultra-white, ultra-conservative" outsiders.

Proxy or not, Booker defeated Rice and two other candidates by a healthy margin. And he now has the opportunity--some might call it the unenviable task--of effecting education overhaul in one of America's most troubled and beleaguered cities. Can he succeed?

A Silver-Spoon Childhood

Many people thought that Cory Booker was too good to be true--especially for Newark. Booker pieced together an unusual but winning coalition of high society--Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, publisher David Bradley, and the Heinz family among them--and reform-minded Newarkers like those who turned out at the Mediterranean Manor with their $50 and, after listening to a brief stump speech, rushed to the dance floor to do the electric slide.

Until now, Cory Booker was famous for being famous. A one-term Newark city councilman who made an impressive but finally unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2002, he nevertheless had the unmistakable air and bearing of someone ready for the big time. Friends are convinced he will be the first black president of the United States. …

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