Cory Booker now says he opposes school vouchers. But he backed D.C.’s voucher program just months ago

Cory Booker told the Washington Post he no longer supports school vouchers — a notable turnaround for the Democratic presidential hopeful who has been a longtime advocate for school choice.

“The evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help — and in fact, hurt — the cause of educational equity,” Booker said in response to the Post’s candidate survey.

But the extent of that anti-voucher stance, and when Booker adopted it, remain somewhat mysterious.

According to the Post, Booker said that he had turned against publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition by 2006, when he became mayor of Newark, New Jersey. In fact, Booker has been a voucher supporter on the national stage for at least a decade since — and remains one, according to legislation he is supporting.

He is still listed as a co-sponsor of a Senate bill to re-authorize Washington D.C.’s school voucher program, legislation he signed onto this February after announcing his bid for president. In 2012 and 2016 he spoke to the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group previously led by Betsy DeVos, now education secretary. He called it an “incredible organization.”

Spokespeople for Booker’s campaign and Senate office did not respond to requests for comment.

Booker has struggled to gain traction as a presidential candidate, and recently announced that if he didn’t hit fundraising targets in the next several days, he would drop out of the race. Education issues probably aren’t the main reason for his setbacks as a candidate, but Booker’s past association with DeVos — who is highly unpopular among Democrats — has dogged him throughout the campaign.

Booker’s about-face highlights how the political winds have shifted on education issues over the past decades.

Historically, most Democratic politicians have opposed vouchers, but some have broken with their party, arguing that they provide a much needed lifeline for low-income students in struggling public schools.

In 1990, Wisconsin created a voucher program in Milwaukee with the support of Republicans and a number of black Democrats. In 1997, Joe Biden, then a U.S. Senator, expressed openness to the idea of vouchers, even though he had previously voted against them. In 2000, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman supported vouchers, in contrast with his running mate Al Gore. In 2003, Colorado passed a voucher law — subsequently struck down by state courts — with the support of Ken Salazar, a prominent Democrat and Latino politician in the state.

Over time, some of that energy would be redirected toward the growth of charter schools, including in Newark, where about one in three public school students now attend a charter.

In 2014, President Obama, for instance, explained his opposition to vouchers by saying his administration had supported charter schools instead. In Denver, where charter schools have flourished, a Democratic school board member who once supported vouchers explained that debate had become less relevant. “We have a whole mechanism that lets parents select a school they want for their children,” said Barbara O’Brien in 2013.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in 2017, the president of Democrats for Education Reform Shavar Jeffries described vouchers as a “sideshow,” and said the focus should be on charters.

Vouchers have continued to see some political success largely in red states, like Tennessee, which recently passed such a program. Today, few Democrats on the national stage back vouchers, and none of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have indicated support for the idea. Many in the party have become increasingly skeptical of charter schools as well.

DeVos, who has championed private school vouchers throughout her career, may have polarized the issue even further, and her efforts to get school choice initiatives through Congress have gone nowhere. One poll has shown that support for vouchers has actually ticked up while DeVos has been education secretary, but DeVos herself remains a bogeyman for progressive politicians.

Booker obviously has a political incentive to change his views on the hot-button issue as he vies for higher office. In his brief response to the Post, though, Booker suggested that his shifting opinion is due to new evidence.

It’s true that a number of studies in recent years have found that private school vouchers hurt participating students’ test scores. Research out of Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio has found that students who use a voucher perform significantly worse on state math tests, even years into the program. Before 2015, there were few if any studies showing such negative effects.

Supporters of vouchers tend to point to research showing other kinds of benefits for students. In the most recent evaluation, for example, Washington D.C. students who used a voucher didn’t have better (or worse) test scores, but they did have lower rates of chronic absenteeism and reported feeling more satisfied with their school.