Newark Mayor Cory Booker is one of the most prominent national Democrats to embrace private school vouchers. He’s teamed up with his chief Garden State political rival, GOP Gov. Chris Christie, to help birth a new Newark teacher contract that includes merit-pay. And for good measure, he persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, to donate an astonishing $100 million to the long-struggling Newark City Schools.
Now Booker is likely to be the next U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Booker has a commanding lead in the August 13 Democratic primary against U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone. And he appears likely to trounce his GOP opponent in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat.
Years ago, Booker was one of the galvanizing forces in bringing together a cadre of high-powered, deep-pocketed Wall Street donors with an interested in education policy, who worked together to support his early races for city council and mayor. The group eventually became Democrats for Education Reform, which is today is the signature Political Action Committee for lefty politicians who are fans of less-than-traditional lefty policies, like charters and performance pay. (Early Edweek look at DFER and a more recent take here.)
“They knew each other before, but they got involved in politics together to support Cory Booker,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of the group.
And now Booker is almost a kind of mascot for the group they formed. He was part of an event Williams described as its “coming-out party” at the Democratic convention in 2008. And today you can find Booker front and center on the organization’s website, in a video talking about what it means to be a DFER.
The Political Action Committee, of course, continues to love him right back. In fact, the organization has poured some quarter-million dollars into Booker’s Senate campaign, Williams estimates.
It’s an investment, Williams says, in a candidate who would likely have an outsized influence on education policy in the U.S. Senate.
Williams described Booker as a prodigious fundraiser, and said, “the rest of the Senate will come to rely on his ability to help them raise money for their campaigns. That alone will raise the stature of the issues he supports, including education reform. I think it would make it mainstream.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has said he’d like to bring a Democrats-only bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act to the floor this year. If Booker wins his race, as expected, he could be in place in time to vote on the legislation.
Williams sees Booker teaming up with other prominent Democrats, including Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado—the former superintendent of Denver public schools and the administration’s go-to-guy on K-12 policy—as well as Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Warner of Virginia.
“The Senate is becoming a place where discussions of education reform have actually gotten interesting,” Williams added. “I think if you add one person into the mix, especially someone as persuasive as Cory Booker, it could be quite powerful for education reform.”
But Booker isn’t the only candidate in the Democratic primary with a long record on education overhaul. Holt is a long-time and extremely active member of the House education committee. An honest-to-goodness rocket scientist, who plays up his geek credentials on his campaign website, Holt has been a major champion of science, technology, math, and engineering programs.
Like Booker, he’s gotten kudos from DFER and similar groups for his ardent support of high-quality charter schools.
Holt is the co-chair of the House of Representatives charter school caucus. Unlike Booker, however, he’s very anti-voucher.
“I would say education is an issue in this campaign,” Holt said in an interview. “It’s important to me personally, and it’s important to my progressive agenda.”
And it’s an area, he said, where there are clear distinctions between the candidates. “As for the contrast, I have said all along I don’t support vouchers. They are simply an efficient way of siphoning resources away from the public schools. The role of the federal government should be to promote public schools broadly, not to focus on how we can address some small segment of the student population.”
In speaking before the Education Writer’s Association last year, Booker explained his stance in favor of vouchers this way: “How can I tell a parent that they have to stay in a failing system ... These kids are locked in a prison. Am I supposed to tell a parent, ‘You just wait until we get this figured out?’”
Think Holt’s strong anti-voucher stance has earned him the backing of the state’s politically powerful teachers’ union? You’d be wrong. The New Jersey Education Association, an NEA affiliate, is sitting out this race. The group hasn’t endorsed Booker, Holt, or Pallone, the other Democrat running. (Pallone, who is polling ahead of Holt, is best known for his work on health care. He hasn’t been as high-profile on K-12 education as either Booker or Holt.)
Vouchers are “certainly an area where we are in disagreement” with Booker, said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA. But he added, “It’s not the only factor in an endorsement.” And, he said, NJEA typically sits outprimaries .
Holt thinks the union is missing an opportunity here.
“I do think the NJEA sees a difference among the candidates,” he said. “I wish they were working to advance their interests more fully rather than sitting back and waiting for the results come what may.”
As for DFER, Williams is disappointed that the organization had to choose between two Garden State politicians it really likes.
“Our folks [are] big fans of Rush Holt,” he said. “My challenge is to go back and make him feel loved in the House.”