Misulonas: Despite many hits, Booker’s glaring miss on education reform


Joseph Misulonas, Columnist

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., will give a speech on campus Tuesday at an event hosted by Northwestern’s College Democrats.

Booker is one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party. Since being elected mayor in 2006, he has greatly improved the city of Newark. Crime rates have gone down significantly, and Booker has both increased the amount of affordable housing in the city and reinvigorated the local economy. (Also important: He banned “Jersey Shore” from filming in the city.)

There is, however a problem I have with Booker: He has jumped aboard the charter school education reform bandwagon that has consumed the Democratic Party in recent years.

Education reform is one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats find common ground. In recent years, both sides have championed the creation of charter schools as an alternative for poorly performing public schools, and both advocate for voucher systems to allow inner-city children to attend schools outside of their districts.

The problem with education reform is that it is a convenient distraction away from the real problem. Instead of fixing our underperforming (and often underfunded) schools, we just create new schools and move all our children there. It would be like if you were running a furniture company that was going bankrupt, and you decided to just create another business and move all your workers and furniture to your new location and pretend your previous failures never happened.

Those who push for education reform will argue that my metaphor is misleading and overly simplistic. Charter school advocates say the problem with public schools is government-imposed mandates and regulations that restrict curriculum freedom. They also argue teachers unions have made it nearly impossible for principals and superintendents to fire bad teachers, and that public schools are forced to keep these greedy educators on at the expense of the students. Therefore, charter schools offer an alternative where government mandates and teachers unions cannot prevent students from flourishing.

However, this is simply not true. In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University studied more than 70 percent of the students in U.S. charter schools and compared their performance with students in the traditional public school they would have attended had they not gone to the charter school. The researchers found that 17 percent of charter schools offered superior education opportunities compared to the public school alternative, 46 percent offered the same education opportunities, while 37 percent of charter schools delivered significantly worse learning results than the public school alternative.

Despite the findings of the CREDO researchers and other similar studies, both parties have continued to hop on the charter school bandwagon. President Obama appointed Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who closed several schools and replaced them with charter schools, as his Secretary of Education. Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. have all appointed education reformers in the past to run their public school systems. Most of these school systems are seeing little to no improvement under the leadership of the reformers, yet Democrats continue to back them.

Chicago is one of the major cities where the charter school battle rages. According to CPS officials, about 53,000 of the district’s 400,000 students attend charter schools, and the city is looking to add 60 new charters in the five years. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made aggressive expansion of charter schools a major plank of his education platform. Emanuel’s charter school position was an underlying issue in last month’s Chicago Teachers Union strike. Paul Ryan famously said, “We stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” against the CTU, indicating the strange position Democrats have found themselves in their support of charter schools.

It seems odd that the party promoting the ability of government intervention to help restore American jobs and restart the economy has taken such a small-government, pro-privatization stance on public education.

Cory Booker is an admirable mayor, and there are many things I believe Emanuel could learn from him as he tries to fix the mess that has become the city of Chicago. But his continual support of charter-based education reform is only working around the issue of Newark’s struggling public schools and is not a real solution to fixing them.

Joseph Misulonas is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].