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Eric Blanc: Cory Booker Hates Public Schools

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Cory Booker has launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The stories in the mainstream media focus on his charm, his charisma, his theme of “love” and bipartisanship.

But they all miss one point, which Eric Blanc stresses: Cory Booker hates public schools.

Sen. Cory Booker (NJ–D) announced his presidential campaign last week. There’s plenty about Booker’s record worth examining, from his extremely cozy relationship with pharmaceutical companies to his bizarre public defense of Wall Street. But nothing in Booker’s past is as damning as his record on schools.

For close to two decades, Cory Booker has been at the forefront of a nationwide push to dismantle public education.

According to Booker, the education system is the main cause of our society’s fundamental problems, rather than, say, inequality and unchecked corporate power. As he explained in a 2011 speech, “disparities in income in America are not because of some ‘greedy capitalist’ — no! It’s because of a failing education system.”

Public schools, Booker continued, are also responsible for mass incarceration and racial injustice. To combat such evils, Booker has openly praised Republican leader Betsy DeVos’s organization American Federation for Children for fighting to win the final battle of the civil rights’ movement.

Scapegoating underfunded public schools for deeply rooted racial and economic problems makes little sense. But it’s been a ticket to the top for Cory Booker. In fact, it was by hitching his star to the corporate-backed “education reform” movement that Booker first rose to prominence.

The son of wealthy parents who were among IBM’s first black executives, Booker’s big political break came in September 2000, when he was tapped to give a keynote speech to the archconservative Manhattan Institute. Calling the Newark school system “repugnant,” Booker claimed there was “great evidence” that large groups of children “cannot succeed in the public school system.”

Yet rather than improving this system by increasing school funding or building public “community schools,” Booker made a hard case for charter schools as well as school vouchers, i.e., state funding for parents to pay for private schools. To give this pitch a social justice veneer, he quoted Frederick Douglas — “power concedes nothing without force” — and steeped his arguments in the language of racial justice.

Booker’s eloquent advocacy of corporate antiracism quickly caught the eye of wealthy hedge-fund investors interested in pushing privatization. In Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, a detailed account of philanthropic efforts to reform Newark’s public schools, Booker notes that though he “became a pariah in Democratic circles for taking on the Party orthodoxy on education,” his 2002 mayoral bid was boosted by “all these Republican donors and donors from outside Newark, many of them motivated because we have an African-American urban Democrat telling the truth about education.”

One of Booker’s main financial backers, Whitney Tilson, was honest about the profit motivations for large hedge-fund investors like himself. Charter schools, he explained to the New York Times, are the ideal philanthropic opportunity for such business leaders because “[h]edge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”

While the over $3 million in campaign contributions Booker received from his school reform sponsors was not quite enough to buy him the 2002 election, Booker’s 2006 mayoral bid was victorious. Due in large part to his zealous commitment to privatization, Newark has gone from having less than 10 percent of students in charters in 2008, to over 33 percent today; by 2022, 44 percent of the city’s students are set to be schooled in these publicly financed but privately run institutions.

If you blame public schools for all of the ills of our unjust society, Cory Booker is your guy.

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