2020 vision

Cory Booker has been an ed reform favorite. That could be a problem for his 2020 campaign.

Cory Booker with students at Weequahic High School when he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is running for president — and bringing a lengthy record on education with him.

The former mayor of Newark announced his plans Friday, joining a growing group of Democratic hopefuls. One way he stands out from that crowd: He’s spent much of his career promoting a specific vision for improving education that includes charter schools and merit pay for teachers — views that in recent years have gone out of fashion with many Democrats.

On Friday, Booker vowed to run “the boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is,” noting he’s previously been endorsed by his state’s teachers unions.

But at a time when teachers across the country are pushing for higher salaries and against charter schools, Booker’s record on education is sure to draw a skeptical eye from unions and public school advocates. And his past work alongside Betsy DeVos may make its way into campaign attack ads from his Democratic opponents, even though he voted against her as education secretary.

Here’s what you should know about Booker’s education track record, including the dramatic overhaul of schools in Newark he oversaw as mayor.

His vision for education has looked a lot like Barack Obama’s …

Booker, who first ran for Newark mayor in 2002, gained prominence at a time when both Democrats and Republicans were endorsing what became known as “education reform”: a constellation of policies that included school choice, including through privately managed charter schools; accountability for low-performing schools; and ratings for teachers that weighed student test scores.

Booker was among the strongest local evangelists of the movement, which drew criticism from teachers unions and community groups who understood that its goals could be at odds with their own. He even became a leading figure for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that worked to advance the reform agenda among elected officials and successfully influenced President Obama’s education platform.

Booker has championed policies that reward highly rated teachers and remove those with poor ratings.

And he’s been a vocal critic of teachers unions along the way, something that could be problematic as he tries to run a pro-teacher campaign.

“Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered,” Booker said in 2008, urging Democratic office holders to “have the political will to stand up against these phenomenally powerful interests.”

“I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters,” he said.

… Except where his vision has looked more like Betsy Devos’s.

Like every Senate Democrat (and two Republicans), Booker voted against Trump’s nominee for secretary of education in 2017. But unlike his colleagues, he appeared to have a close connection with Betsy DeVos.

That connection stems from one issue where Booker has also gone further than most Democrats: school vouchers. In 2001, he spoke at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, praising private school vouchers, something most progressives opposed then and now.

Booker served with DeVos on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice (now known as the American Federation for Children Growth Fund). He also spoke at gatherings of the American Federation for Children, an organization DeVos chaired, in 2012 and again in 2016.

“The mission of this organization is aligned with the mission of our nation,” he said in 2016.

The American Federation of Children has focused much of its efforts on promoting private-school voucher programs, which Booker has supported, arguing that poor children and children of color need ways to escape from struggling public schools.

Still, Booker voted against DeVos, whose nomination drew fierce opposition from teachers across the country. He said his vote was about DeVos’s record on issues outside of school choice.

As a senator, Booker has continued to support vouchers and tougher test-based accountability for schools. Along with Elizabeth Warren — now a Democratic primary rival — Booker led the charge to ratchet up pressure on low-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a move opposed by the National Education Association.

In 2015, Booker joined three other senators to sponsor the extension of the Washington, D.C. school voucher program. Last week, those three senators were again pushing for reauthorization — but without Booker. It’s unclear whether that’s a sign of waning support. In an interview with CNN in 2017, Booker said his views on education “haven’t changed one iota.”

As Newark mayor, Booker used his star power to champion dramatic changes to schools. Those reforms sparked backlash locally, overshadowing any limited evidence of success.

The clearest case study of Booker’s education philosophy can be found in Newark, New Jersey, the city where he engineered a massive — and massively controversial — overhaul of the city’s beleaguered school system.

As Newark’s mayor, he formed a bipartisan alliance with then-Gov. Chris Christie to reshape the district, the state’s largest and one of its most troubled. To bankroll their efforts, Booker secured a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a matching amount from other deep-pocketed donors eager to see Newark become a “proof point” for the education reform movement.

The changes that Booker helped bring came straight out of that playbook: school closures, more charter schools, the ouster of some teachers and principals deemed ineffective, and a new teachers contract that tied teachers’ pay to their performance.

Although the union agreed to the contract, a number of the changes triggered bitter resistance among teachers. Ras Baraka, a local principal, turned his opposition to the reforms into a winning bid for mayor and many residents first learned of the planned overhaul through a splashy announcement on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In the coming years, students would stage a sit-in protest in the board of education headquarters, and the firebrand superintendent charged with carrying out the changes, Cami Anderson, would be run out of town.

There’s no doubt the reforms were unpopular with many residents. Whether they improved outcomes for students has been the subject of debate.

A recent study led by Harvard researchers found that the changes led to an initial decline in student growth on state tests. By 2016, students’ annual gains in English, but not math, were higher than comparable students across New Jersey, the researchers found. Students’ scores have continued to rise, and graduation rates leapt nearly 20 percentage points since the overhaul began. Meanwhile, the city’s large charter-school networks — including North Star Academy, whose board Booker once sat on — rank among the top performing schools in the state.

Other indicators are less encouraging: About one in three students in Newark’s traditional schools were chronically absent last school year — about the same share as when the reforms began.

But whatever improvements the changes spurred have largely been overshadowed by the way they were enacted. Detailed in the book “The Prize” by journalist Dale Russakoff, the overhaul came to symbolize top-down reform imposed by ideological outsiders and highly paid consultants.

In recent years, Zuckerberg has reconsidered his approach to reform in Newark, saying he wants to “go in the opposite direction” by working more closely with community members and teachers unions.

Booker, by contrast, has shown no regrets. In a recent interview, he expressed frustration with the widespread perception that the Newark reforms went awry, calling it “one of the biggest disconnects between reality and perception that I’ve ever seen in my politics.”

During a briefing with Newark reporters in January 2018, Booker recalled how aides had warned that “forces that don’t even really care about schools” would “savage” his reputation if he tried to shake up the city’s school system. That prediction came true, Booker said, yet he still stands by the controversial reforms.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, pointing to students’ recent test-score gains. “It really is one of prouder efforts I’ve been a part of in my life.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.