In a July 22 Philadelphia Inquirer article, University of Pennsylvania professor of pediatrics Hallam Hurt says, “Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.” Though the link between poverty and poor academic performance is well-documented, politicians and policymakers who promote educational reform continue to identify schools—and not failures of society—as being the primary problem in many urban areas.
One such politician is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose position on public education in New Jersey becomes more and more troubling as the August primary for the US Senate seat nears. Booker, the son of two executives at IBM, was raised in Harrington Park, NJ—a wealthy suburb in Bergen County whose high-performing school system has won national recognition. In discussing his position on educational issues, Booker has said that he desires to afford Newark children the same educational opportunities he himself had growing up in an affluent community.
Such a desire is certainly commendable, yet Booker’s approach to education policy reflects a gross misunderstanding of the workings of public education and a denial of the effects poverty has on learning.
There’s no question that Booker has spent a great deal of time living in, working in, and examining the city he governs—which makes his philosophies regarding how to improve education for all students even more perplexing. In an interview with the Associated Press, Booker said, “How can we have a democracy in which we create, in a sense, an educational apartheid, where kids born in certain zip codes get great educations and kids born in other zip codes are trapped in schools?”
Yet as he blames zip codes and the public school system for what he describes as “educational apartheid,” Booker’s support of vouchers, for-profit charters, and union-busting further divide the city’s children—26% of whom live in poverty. In essence, Booker has adopted the abandonment policy that is shared by education reformers all over the country: public schools are failing, so instead of supporting and funding them and focusing our money and efforts to help support children and their families, we’ll use taxpayer dollars to shuffle kids out to “new” or “better” schools. Same kids…just rerouting them to different buildings—most of which are not bound to the crippling policies (test, test, test; cut programs and personnel; blame teachers for failures in society over which they have little control) to which their public counterparts are subject.
All this kid-shuffling and fund diversion begs the question: who will be left in the public schools if we dangle charters and vouchers in front of kids who feel “trapped” by the “educational apartheid” to which they’re subject? Simple: those who really have no advocates—no parents or guardians who are informed, motivated, or present enough to get their kids out of the schools Booker says are failing. Yes, it is possible to further divide an already-divided society.
Has “school choice” done anything to help public schools, which are already being destroyed by interference from non-educator corporate and political reformers who have their own financial interests in mind—and who naively believe that test scores are the best measure of a student’s and teacher’s worth? If we continue to advocate alternatives to public schools, what message do we send to those who will remain in them—either to learn or to teach? Simple: that public schools themselves are the problem—and that charters or private schools are somehow better.
And how will the limited funding for public schools—along with the new teacher evaluation system that places supreme importance on test scores and limits the autonomy educators have in their classrooms—affect the educators who have devoted their careers to those public schools? Simple: teacher turnover will be at an all-time high, and organizations like Teach for America (which provides college graduates with a 5-week training program to prepare them to teach in urban settings, and whose Corps Members generally only teach for a few years before moving on to other careers) will gain increased favor with policymakers who value cheap and temporary labor over the expertise trained, veteran educators offer. Those same veteran educators, who have been demoralized and devalued, will have the odds so stacked against them that their jobs will be virtually impossible. (They’re currently working under Superintendent Cami Anderson, who drew a unanimous vote of no confidence from the Newark school board in April and who could be awarded a $50,000 bonus on top of her $247,500 salary this year.) After all, how can a teacher provide a rich learning environment in overcrowded classrooms when programs, extracurricular activities, support services, and other personnel have been cut—especially when the goal of those teachers must be to train students to pass high-stakes standardized tests?
The ultimate irony in the current climate of educational reform? Proponents of reform dictate policies that will undoubtedly cause public schools to fail. It’s as if they want public schools to fail. That would make sense, though, since a complete failure of the public schools system would help justify private takeover of our children’s educations.
In short, the policies reformers advocate are damaging to public education, and since Cory Booker supports many of these policies, he too is actively contributing to the breakdown of the public school system.