WASHINGTON — Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had a big night Wednesday during the debate among 10 Democratic presidential candidates, with many pundits saying he won the night. That means there will be more focus on him and his record — and that includes his long-standing ties to controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Sabrina Singh, a Booker campaign spokeswoman, said in an email that Booker "has been very critical of DeVos and remains consistent on that" — but that depends on your definition of "consistent."
Booker voted against DeVos becoming President Donald Trump's education secretary in 2017, but that followed more than a decade of a consistently close association between them.
Early in his political career, Booker was a supporter of the DeVos agenda on education reform, which focused on expanding alternatives to traditional public school districts, including charter schools and voucher programs that use public money for private and religious education.
While many Democrats have supported charter schools — with something of a backlash now being seen — most oppose vouchers and voucherlike programs, and see the DeVos agenda as an effort to privatize the public education system.
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Not Booker. In 1999, Booker was a member of the Municipal Council of Newark and worked with conservatives to form an organization that sought to create a voucher program and bring charter schools to New Jersey.
In 2000, Booker was brought to Michigan to tout a ballot initiative called Proposal 1 that would have made private school vouchers a constitutional right in the state. He was invited to speak in Grand Rapids at the Wealthy Theater (really) by Betsy DeVos and Richard DeVos Jr., who were leaders of the school choice movement in their home state of Michigan and around the country.
Why was he invited? "We wanted someone who wasn't from the suburbs," Dick DeVos told a reporter, as recounted by author and educator Jennifer Berkshire in this New Republic piece.
The voters crushed Proposal 1, but over 15 years, the DeVoses and their allies used the arguments Booker made — that parents should decide where public money should go, not school districts.
In 2001, New Jersey campaign records show, Richard DeVos Jr., donated $1,000 to Booker's 2002 Newark mayoral campaign. He lost, but he won the job four years later. (The last name is spelled DeVose on the Schedule A Monetary Contributions in Excess of $400 campaign form, but the address is that of a DeVos family foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.)
The Booker campaign said it could not immediately respond to a question about whether Booker had accepted money from any members of the billionaire DeVos family.
The Booker-DeVos relationship continued after he became Newark mayor in 2006 (serving through 2013).
As mayor, Booker pushed education policies that supported school choice and measures that sought to operate public schools as if they were businesses. With the help of a $100 million matching grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and New Jersey's Republican governor at the time, Chris Christie, Booker sought an overhaul of the school system. It focused on expanding charter schools, evaluating teachers with student standardized test scores, giving teachers performance pay, closing under-enrolled schools and other corporate-informed actions. This approach was popular in the Obama era but has largely failed to show the results supporters promised.
In Newark, the long-troubled public schools remain troubled, and the Zuckerberg experiment — announced on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," as Booker wanted — was deemed less than successful, with much of the money going to consultants. Zuckerberg has said he regrets the way the effort was undertaken, without input from teachers or community representatives.
Democrats traditionally have had good relations with labor unions, but Booker and the teachers unions often fought. The Newark teachers union opposed his reelection for mayor in 2010 and did not endorse him in a 2013 special election for a U.S. Senate seat.
Booker held a seat on the board of directors of a DeVos education group, known first as the Alliance for School Choice and now as the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, and he spoke at federation events in 2012 and 2016. In 2016, he urged participants at a policy summit of the federation to "stay faithful to the work we are doing."
Perhaps to DeVos's surprise, Booker began to turn away from her after Trump was elected. Before her confirmation by the Senate in February 2017, he said he had "serious early concerns" about her becoming education secretary. In a speech on the Senate floor, he said he would not vote to approve her for a number of reasons, including concerns that she would not protect the civil rights of vulnerable students. I could find no record of him saying the same thing in public before that.
Booker did vote against her nomination — she was, in fact, the only Cabinet nominee in history who had to be confirmed with the vote of the vice president. And since he announced his candidacy for president, Booker has talked less about school choice and more about traditional public schools, where most American schoolchildren are enrolled.
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union and largest labor union of any kind, recently had a forum to give Democratic candidates a chance to talk about education policy. Booker was one of the candidates not on the agenda. He also hasn't appeared at forums staged by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, to give candidates a chance to answer education questions.
On his campaign website, one of the issues cited as being important to him is "public education." There is not a word about the school choice agenda that was long his focus. It says instead:
"Access to a high-quality public education should not depend on a child's zip code. Teachers across the country are overworked, underpaid, and undersupported at a time when they are going above and beyond for our students. They deserve better. We must pay teachers more, stop Republican attacks on public education, and invest in our schools.
"As president, Cory will massively expand support for public schools and our public school teachers."