Monday, July 29, 2013

What Could a U.S. Sen. Cory Booker Mean for K-12 Policy?

This from Politics K-12:
Newark Mayor Cory Booker is one of the most prominent national Democrats to embrace private school vouchers. He's teamed up with his chief Garden State political rival, GOP Gov. Chris Christie, to help birth a new Newark teacher contract that includes merit-pay. And for good measure, he persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, to donate an astonishing $100 million to the long-struggling Newark City Schools.

Now Booker is likely to be the next U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Booker has a commanding lead in the August 13 Democratic primary against U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone. And he appears likely to trounce his GOP opponent in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat.

Years ago, Booker was one of the galvanizing forces in bringing together a cadre of high-powered, deep-pocketed Wall Street donors with an interested in education policy, who worked together to support his early races for city council and mayor. The group eventually became Democrats for Education Reform, which is today is the signature Political Action Committee for lefty politicians who are fans of less-than-traditional lefty policies, like charters and performance pay. (Early Edweek look at DFER and a more recent take here.)

"They knew each other before, but they got involved in politics together to support Cory Booker," said Joe Williams, the executive director of the group.

And now Booker is almost a kind of mascot for the group they formed. He was part of an event Williams described as its "coming-out party" at the Democratic convention in 2008. And today you can find Booker front and center on the organization's website, in a video talking about what it means to be a DFER.

The Political Action Committee, of course, continues to love him right back. In fact, the organization has poured some quarter-million dollars into Booker's Senate campaign, Williams estimates.

It's an investment, Williams says, in a candidate who would likely have an outsized influence on education policy in the U.S. Senate.

Williams described Booker as a prodigious fundraiser, and said, "the rest of the Senate will come to rely on his ability to help them raise money for their campaigns. That alone will raise the stature of the issues he supports, including education reform. I think it would make it mainstream."

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has said he'd like to bring a Democrats-only bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act to the floor this year. If Booker wins his race, as expected, he could be in place in time to vote on the legislation.

Williams sees Booker teaming up with other prominent Democrats, including Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado—the former superintendent of Denver public schools and the administration's go-to-guy on K-12 policy—as well as Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Warner of Virginia.

"The Senate is becoming a place where discussions of education reform have actually gotten interesting," Williams added. "I think if you add one person into the mix, especially someone as persuasive as Cory Booker, it could be quite powerful for education reform."

"I do think the NJEA sees a difference among the candidates," he said. "I wish they were working to advance their interests more fully rather than sitting back and waiting for the results come what may."
As for DFER, Williams is disappointed that the organization had to choose between two Garden State politicians it really likes.

"Our folks [are] big fans of Rush Holt," he said. "My challenge is to go back and make him feel loved in the House."...

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