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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/23/2012

Cory Booker has crossed the aisle before — on school reform

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, has been in the news for blasting President Obama’s campaign ads attacking Mitt Romney’s career with a private-equity firm and calling the tone of the presidential campaign “nauseating to me on both sides.”

This isn’t the first time that Booker has sided with Republicans over the leader of his own party.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, jokes with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during in 2011. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Booker has made school reform a key initiative of his administration in New Jersey’s biggest city. And he has been an outspoken supporter of the school reform policies of the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, which include an expansion of charter schools, the end of teacher tenures, and the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. He has called the state’s largest teachers union a group of “bullies and thugs.”

While there are a number of issues on which Obama and Christie agree when it comes to school reform — including charter school growth and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers — there is at least one key area where they depart company.

Obama opposes vouchers, which provide public money for students to use for private school tuition. But Christie does support them, and so does Booker.

According to this story in the Star-Ledger newspaper, Booker and Christie last month both spoke at the national policy meeting of the American Federation for Children. The federation’s board chair is Betsy DeVos, a key member of the DeVos family, which has spent millions to support efforts to promote vouchers and promote reforms that are furthering the privatization of public education.

She is, incidentally, wife of Dick DeVos, who is the son of the co-founder of Amway, and the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the private military contractor once known as Blackwater USA and now called Xe Services LLC.

In 2002, during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a portion of which you can see in this video, Dick DeVos laid out a strategy for promoting school vouchers in state legislatures in a way that would not draw too much attention. “We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” he said, also saying that his supporters should refer to public schools as “government schools.”

Incidentally, a review published last year of voucher research over the past decade concluded that vouchers over all “do not have a strong effect on students’ academic achievement” and that proponents have shifted their rhetoric away from academic impact and instead highlight parent choice and other issues.

The analysis, called “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research,” was done by the Center on Education Policy, an independent nonprofit that takes no position on voucher programs.

Newark schools have actually been under the control of the state education department for more than 15 years. That means neither Booker nor Christie has no real control over the schools.

But Booker was involved with the donation by Mark Zuckerberg of $100 million for Newark school reform, a decision the Facebook founder made after meeting Booker and becoming impressed with him.

Booker created a nonprofit organizzation called the Foundation for Newark’s Future to find matching funds for Zuckerberg’s gift and to decide who gets the money.

This October 2011 story in the Newark Star-Ledger said that records obtained by the Education Law Center in Newark showed that of the first $13 million spent out of the total $148 million donated, about a third had been been spent since September 2010 to pay political and educational consultants and contractors.

Furthermore, most of that money has gone to people and organizations that have connections to Booker, as well as to New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, according to the newspaper.

The Star-Ledger quoted foundation director Greg Taylor as defending the payments to the consultants, saying that they were necessary costs related to setting up the new foundation and that they went to people who had extensive experience.


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