A prodigal son of the charter school sector returned home on Monday, when Senator Cory Booker voiced support for charter schools in the New York Times, a notable shift from his criticism of charter schools back in May.
It was a bold move in some ways, especially given the precariousness of his presidential bid and the inevitable price he will pay with the teachers unions. It was also a strategic move to the middle as centrist Michael Bloomberg joins the race and underdog Pete Buttigieg builds steam.
It’s not hard to see the politics at play, but Booker deserves credit for calling out the Democratic party for being unresponsive to many constituents who support charter schooling. Booker takes fellow Democrats to task for not listening to the families who face “impossible choices” in favor of the more “privileged voices” in the party, a veiled reference to the omnipotent teachers unions, whose favor Senator Elizabeth Warren courted with her anti-charter education plan a few weeks ago.
Recent survey data on charter schools illustrates the misalignment between Democratic Party leadership and many of its key constituent groups, with higher levels of charter school support from African American and Hispanic subgroups than from Democrats and teachers.
In a survey from Education Next, 55 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of Hispanics supported charter schools, compared to just 40 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of public school teachers. A survey from EdChoice showed higher levels of support for charter schools across the board, but also revealed a gap between subgroups. Sixty-six percent of African Americans and 74 percent of Hispanics supported charter schools, compared to 60 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of public school teachers. Note that the subgroups here are not mutually exclusive (e.g., the subgroup for Democrats includes Democrats who are teachers). This poll data suggests that Booker is onto something: the positions staked out by many leaders in the Democratic Party are misaligned to many of those they seek to serve.
Surely, Booker is also aware of a recent poll from Newark, New Jersey, where he was mayor from 2006 to 2013, showing broad support for charter schools. In the poll, 63% of respondents agreed that “public charter schools are an important part of the public school landscape in Newark” and 88% agreed that “parents in Newark should have more high quality options than they have right now, including public charter schools.” Booker, of course, earned credibility on education and charter schooling when he helped broker a bipartisan effort with Republican Governor Chris Christie in 2010. Alongside other reforms, and with philanthropic support from Mark Zuckerberg, Booker worked to increase the number of high-quality charter schools in Newark and helped carve a rare path for bipartisan cooperation.
The New York Times op-ed stands in stark contrast to remarks Booker made just a few months ago in Iowa, but short attention spans and the 24-hour news cycle allows Booker to nonetheless appear as a candidate willing to speak truth to power within his own party, and as a champion for constituencies whose voices too often get drowned out. Would he have published this op-ed had Bloomberg, who has supported charter schools, not joined the race? If Buttigieg had not softened the ground by incurring the wrath of Diane Ravitch? Perhaps not. But just because Booker’s defense of charter schools was surely a political calculation, doesn’t mean he isn’t right.
Let’s hope the move does more than build support for Cory Booker. Let’s hope it prompts the other Democratic candidates to look more closely at the needs and preferences of their constituents — beyond those with power within the party — and decide that it is not only politically astute but also right to provide more high-quality options to the children who need them.