New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s older brother, Cary Booker, has made headlines recently after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, hired him for a top education job in the Garden State.
Cary Booker co-founded a charter school in Memphis that struggled from the start and was forced to close by its district in 2016 after years of struggling with low finances, management issues, and poor academic results, NJ.com reported recently. That track record and a reported lack of experience with early-childhood education have led some to question Murphy’s decision to give him a $150,000 position leading the state education department’s early-childhood education division.
Perhaps more relevant for Sen. Booker: Headlines about his brother’s hiring could stir up more questions about charter schools, an issue he has had to address carefully on the campaign trail as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. As mayor of Newark, from 2006-2013, Cory Booker was a strong supporter of school choice, including charter schools, which have been a prominent and sometimes-difficult education issue among Democratic presidential candidates.
The Charter School Cary Booker Co-Founded
In a statement to NJ.com, Cary Booker called his first year at Omni Prep Academy, the school he co-founded in Memphis in 2010, “admittedly the most challenging” of his career.
Omni Prep, which had elementary and middle school programs, struggled to recruit enough students in its first year. As a result, it fell short financially and sometimes failed to pay its teachers, NJ.com reports. Former teachers told New Jersey and Tennessee media that they weren’t adequately trained and weren’t given curriculum (an assertion Cary Booker denies). Some teachers’ concerns were so great that they resigned before the conclusion of the first school year, the Memphis Flyer reported in 2011.
“I think the problem with charter schools is that you can conceptualize a great program, but then you get it, and it’s kind of like a dog catching a car—what do you do now?” Memphis City School Board member Tomeka Hart told the Flyer for that story. “The implementation of that program you have visualized in your head and your heart and on paper, it doesn’t always work out.”
The Shelby County district ordered Omni Prep to close in 2016, a decision that was upheld by the state, after an official concluded the charter “had a continued pattern of significant underperformance toward its achievement goals.”
“No more than 36 percent of students in each middle school grade scored proficient on their state reading or math exams in 2014-15,” NJ.com reports.
Sen. Cory Booker once visited Omni Prep, chatting and joking with students there as seen in the photo below.
Charter Schools and Democratic Presidential Candidates
As we’ve reported previously, some Democratic candidates have taken particularly aggressive positions on charter schools.
And while the Republican Party platform’s language about charter schools has remained pretty consistent since the first charter law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, Democrats have gradually added caveats, calling for strong accountability for charters.
Some charter advocates say those changes reflect Democrats’ desire to win the support of charter-skeptical teachers’ unions. But some charter critics say that it actually reflects flaws with the sector that have been made more obvious as it has grown.
In California, for example, state lawmakers seeking to rein in charter school growth this year said it puts a strain on school districts to lose students to new charter schools and then later be expected to take those students back in when those schools fail. They pointed to schools that had struggles similar to Omni Prep’s as they sought to establish themselves.
Cory Booker and Charter Schools
Sen. Booker faced questions about his history with charter schools from the earliest days of his presidential campaign. As Andrew Ujifusa wrote when Booker announced his run for president:
During his early political career, Booker also garnered support from Wall Street donors who took an interest in education policy. That group of donors eventually helped start Democrats for Education Reform, a group that supports charters and other forms of public school choice—Booker has served on its advisory board. However, some in the education community are suspicious of Booker's Wall Street ties. Booker also grabbed headlines for partnering with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark schools during Booker's tenure as mayor to help support a new teachers' contract in the city, to close under-enrolled schools, and to open new charters. But results from Zuckerberg's gift have been mixed, sparking sharp disagreements among those who participated in it. Zuckerberg has expressed regret about how his philanthropy in Newark schools did not include community members and teachers like it should have."
More recently, a report released in June by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation found improvements in academic performance at Newark’s charter and district-run schools over the last 12 years.
Cory Booker has said little about charter schools on the campaign trail. A bulleted list of education priorities on his website include calls for expanded civil rights enforcement and universal early-childhood education, but it makes no mention of school choice or charter schools. Booker notably hasn’t appeared at a town hall meeting with the American Federation of Teachers, as many other candidates have done, and he didn’t join other candidates at a forum with the National Education Association earlier this month.
Booker brushed aside a question about charters at an Iowa event in February, saying they represent a small proportion of all schools and that he wants “great public education for all of our children.”
But there’s a chance stories about his brother could stir up new questions about his education positions.
Cary Booker in New Jersey
Neither Booker’s senate office nor his campaign replied to requests for comment on his brother’s job or about oversight of charter schools like the one his brother used to run.
Cary Booker has other education experience that predates his work with Omni Prep, including time as an administrator at Rutgers University in Newark and as an education adviser to Murphy.
“Cary’s commitment to public education comes without qualification,” Murphy said in a statement to NJ.com. “He brings a vital perspective on how early-childhood education will influence a child’s potential and an enthusiastic vision to his work.”
“Although our school eventually closed, I’m proud of our hard work,” Cary Booker told NJ.com in a statement."Since returning to New Jersey, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a team that has strengthened public education from pre-K through an associate degree.”
Photos from top: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, center right, hugs his brother Cary Booker, left, as their mother Carolyn Booker looks on after Cory Booker gave his victory speech during an election night party Oct. 16, 2013, in Newark, N.J. --Julio Cortez/AP; then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks to student Kaleb Hall, 10, about the importance of self-confidence and goal-setting during a visit to Omni Prep Academy in Memphis, Tenn. --Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal/AP-File