It’s time for Cory Booker to step up. I write that not in spite of the Newark mayor’s spectacular accomplishments in his first two years in office, but because of them. The Brick City — resilient, reborn under new leadership — is on the mend. But one project looms untouched, without which urban revitalization cannot be close to complete: mayoral control and reform of Newark’s public schools.
It’s hard to understate the miserable condition of New Jersey’s largest school system. For decades, Newark public schools were severely underfunded, resulting in crumbling schools and underpaid teachers. In 1990, however, funding advocates won a landmark lawsuit in the New Jersey Supreme Court which won billions in new school money. Today, per-pupil spending is $18,000, among the highest of urban school districts.
Indeed, Newark’s education failures have not — and cannot — be solved by money alone. Incompetence and outright corruption reached such staggering levels in the early 1990s that the state seized control of the schools from the locally elected school board in 1995, an unprecedented move in education governance.
Unfortunately, the state did not do a much better job. The first state-appointed superintendent, Beverly Hall, left the district with $73 million in school debts; patronage, crime and teacher turnover continued at staggering rates. All the while, students suffered. Today, one-third of adults under 25 in Newark lack a high school diploma, and only 12 percent have a college degree.
Enter Booker, the Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate who in 2006 defeated the race-baiting, corrupt, now imprisoned mayor of 20 years, Sharpe James. Booker’s victory did not end with his election — in fact, it had barely begun.
As the remarkable new Sundance Channel series “Brick City” has documented, Booker lives and breathes urban renewal. Under his leadership, crime has dropped to its lowest levels since 1959 and the amount of affordable housing has doubled. He has also managed to slash the deficit by half.
I don’t use the word “leadership” flippantly. Booker speaks and acts with one purpose: to prove to the nation that his city will thrive again. “Newark will show the country how to fight violent crime; Newark will shock the world” Booker says.
And this is exactly why Booker needs to take control of his city’s schools. The state has already begun the slow process of returning Newark’s schools to local control, but Booker must insist on immediate and complete power over school policy. Reform can only reach the district level in large cities under the auspices of executive power, as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. have shown. One elected leader must be held accountable for the success or failure of public schools; one leader must be empowered to align other city services, from crime to health care to housing, toward education reform; one elected leader must be able to galvanize grassroots activism around this vital common goal.
Booker clearly knows how crucial a player he can be.
He has already taken a few steps toward reforming Newark’s schools. The mayor has procured federal teacher residency funds and enlisted the help of New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit that trains principals invested in innovative education practices. Booker has also been a strong advocate for charter schools, drawing $20 million in private funds and setting the goal of 25 percent enrollment in charters (that figure is now 9 percent). But Booker knows that expanding charter schools is the tip of the iceberg — that the real solution is systemic reform of all the city’s schools to match the fantastic work being done at charters such as North Star Academy.
And he also knows the broader lesson that urban renewal cannot be complete without an excellent public school system. In fact, urban renewal can’t even really begin. No city’s crime rates can steadily fall while a third of its teenagers drop out of high schools; no city’s economy can thrive while a miniscule slice of its young adults have a college degree; and no city’s image can be wholly reborn without a promise of tomorrow’s success.
The political gamesmanship and patronage of the James era will not go away easily, and seizing control of the schools — much less instituting district-wide reform — may well be a Sisyphean task. But this is a man who, against all odds, simply gets things done. And as the miracle mayor himself tells us, Newark will shock the world.
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.