Cory Booker

Cory Booker Is Running for President. Must He Run Away from School Choice?

The New Jersey senator was once a big supporter of education reform, but that could be a liability in 2020.


Sean Rayford/TNS/Newscom

When Cory Booker first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, he was known as a supporter of school choice. Now Sen. Booker is aiming to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. Will he have to run away from education reform to do so?

On Friday, Booker appeared on the front steps of his home in Newark, New Jersey, to take questions from the press. Asked about his long history of support for charter schools, Booker pivoted.

"Our teachers are ridiculously underpaid in America," he said, according to BuzzFeed. "I'm going to run the boldest pro–public school [campaign] there is."

Before joining the Senate, Booker served as mayor of Newark, where he took a keen interest in school choice. He enthusiastically supported vouchers and charter schools, he co-founded a pro-charter group called Excellent Education for Everyone, and he served on the board of Democrats for Education Reform. He was seen as a close ally of the reform-minded Betsy DeVos, and he spoke to her group, American Federation for Children, in as 2016.

"I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options because I benefited from my parents having options," he said.

But when President Donald Trump picked DeVos to be secretary of education, Booker voted against her. He later insisted to CNN's Jake Tapper that he hadn't changed his mind about school choice but voted against DeVos because of changes he believed she would make to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.

If Booker is downplaying his enthusiasm for school choice, it's obvious why: To capture the Democratic nomination, he thinks he'll need to shed his image as a third-way Democrat and court the left. Still, it's a depressing turn of events. A dozen years ago, being pro–education reform was a tactic for bringing moderates and independents into the Democratic fold. Now it's a liability.

In 2016, Reason's Matt Welch predicted that the next Democratic president "will be terrible on education policy," citing a debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in which neither expressed even the slightest interest in holding bad teachers accountable. Trump's unexpected victory may have delayed this prophecy, but as the energy on the Democratic side moves further left on all sorts of issues—from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal to basic questions like whether capitalism is better than socialism—Welch's prediction might still come true.