August 6, 2007


All American: Newark's mayor says school choice is one key to solving the city's woes (CHRISTIAN SAHNER, August 4, 2007, Opinion Journal)

When compared to some other poor cities in the U.S., Newark has distinct advantages. Sitting 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, it boasts extensive rail and highway connections, a booming international airport and one of the busiest seaports in the country--all the infrastructure needed to jumpstart a moribund economy. And thanks to agreements with Continental Airlines, city unions, and new funds to give local entrepreneurs a boost, "We're creating jobs and trying to build sustainability at the same time," Mr. Booker enthuses. But as City Hall knows all too well, blue-chip employers like Prudential and Verizon need skilled labor, and in a city in which only 13% of residents have college degrees, Newark's high-skill workforce will continue to commute from the suburbs for the foreseeable future.

Part of Mr. Booker's solution to this dilemma is education reform centered on school choice. "It's the last frontier we have to cross in order to become the most thriving city in America," he states confidently. "Parents in Newark are more demanding than ever, and they deserve a plethora of options of excellence to choose from that meet the needs of their kids." Mr. Booker is a longtime advocate of school choice: In 1999 he helped found E3, a prominent education-reform group in New Jersey that pushes for charter schools and vouchers for inner-city communities.

Newark's public schools enroll around 42,000 students. With frequent instances of in-school violence, decrepit facilities and low morale, the system is in need of serious overhaul. Just 37% of the city's high-school seniors passed the state proficiency exam in 2005, a statistic that is even more embarrassing considering that city schools spend around $20,000 per pupil--far above the $13,000 state average (itself the second-highest in the country).

Before Mr. Booker can pursue any sweeping reforms, though, he must wrest control of the district from the state, which took over in 1995. "My goal is to turn the clock back to the '70s and vest control in the mayor to appoint school board members that can drive an agenda for reform," Mr. Booker says with hope. "Elected school boards often hit the lowest common denominator. . . . They are not the way to get courageous, driven change."

Mr. Booker emphasizes that until local control returns--which, thanks to recent moves by the state, could be within "16 to 18 months"--his powers are limited. But that hasn't stopped him from cultivating donors to start thinking about charter schools for the future. Last month, he flew to Seattle to meet with representatives of the Gates Foundation. "We had very strong conversations," he reports. "I told them, 'If we can grow KIPP schools and overachieving charter schools [in Newark], it will be much easier to show that [school choice] can work, because you'll see results a lot quicker than in a place like New York, which has around a million school-aged children.'"

Many charter-school donors won't touch Newark until Mr. Booker gains control. Without a powerful leader to ensure accountability, they fear, the city is simply a black hole for outside funding. "The Broad Foundation and others don't want to invest in cities that don't have mayoral control," Mr. Booker says. "So mayoral control has to be one part of the strategy to bring resources into Newark [schools]."

Mr. Booker realizes that educational turnaround will take a lot more than charter schools. Across the country "you're seeing teachers unions allowing merit pay, or unions allowing more leeway in the hiring of good teachers and the firing of bad teachers." In Newark, he predicts, multi-pronged reforms could quickly create "an abundance of excellent schools that can empower our kids to create a 21st century knowledge-based economy, plus keep a lot of residents here."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2007 3:14 PM

Isn't Newark where a tough principal was making inroads, Mr. Brown, I think his name was, but his unorthodox methods earned him a trip out of town on a rail. So much for parents demanding better schools.

Posted by: erp at August 6, 2007 4:57 PM

Booker is the person the press thinks Obama is.

Posted by: Bruno at August 6, 2007 5:19 PM