Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Voucher Issue a Touchy Topic in Newark Race

This embodies why I'm so passionate in my support of Cory Booker: he doesn't kow tow to the Democratic Party orthodoxy, but rather, regardless of the political price (and it's been heavy), supports what's best for the CHILDREN of Newark, who are suffering terribly in one of the worst school systems in the nation.  Vouchers are not a magic bullet here (or anywhere), but surely they're worth trying as one of many tools of reform?!

Mr. Booker says that he has not backed down, arguing that vouchers — which help parents pay for tuition at private schools with money from taxes or private donors — are one of many tools that could be used to improve Newark's schools.

"My determination is to reform the public school system, but I will never oppose programs that help children," Mr. Booker said in a recent interview in his 21st-story law office downtown. "And if it doesn't hurt my main goal, my principal goal of empowering public schools, I support that."

The education dispute in Newark underscores the continuing debate among poor, mostly minority residents in troubled urban school districts over the role of vouchers. Some parents and educators see them as a backhanded attempt to divert resources to private institutions. Others, especially the poor, seem more willing to accept them as an opportunity to escape dysfunctional schools.

Many in Newark now seem open to giving vouchers a shot. Rosa R. Langston, 82, the director of the Office of Children in the city's Department of Health, for example, said that she had been skeptical of vouchers until her granddaughter received a scholarship to a private school, and went on to the University of Pennsylvania.

"If vouchers save our children, for God's sake give it to them," she said. "I'm tired of our children failing."

For Mr. Booker and his supporters, Newark is a perfect illustration of why vouchers are necessary.

More than 10 years after the State Department of Education took control of the district — New Jersey's largest, with nearly 43,000 students — its overall performance has barely improved. State figures show that more than 70 percent of Newark's 11th graders failed the state math test in 2004, while only 30 percent failed statewide. Eighth graders in Newark did not do much better: 65 percent failed state math tests in 2004 and 56 percent failed the language test.

Violence in schools here has also increased by about 35 percent since 2002, as gangs have attracted children as young as 10 and 11, according to the police. The mix of guns, gangs and hot tempers turned fatal last summer, when a school security officer was shot and killed at Weequahic High School after breaking up a fight.

Voucher Issue a Touchy Topic in Newark Race
Published: April 17, 2006

Even with the pugnacious incumbent Sharpe James out of the running, the Newark mayor's race has nonetheless turned bitter and tense over a volatile and racially charged issue: school vouchers.

Cory Booker, running for mayor a second time, supports school vouchers. Last time his opponents successfully used the issue against him.

In 2002, the decision by Mr. James's challenger, Cory Booker, to support vouchers led critics to portray him as a tool of white conservatives — a suburbanite who was not black enough to lead what has long been considered one of the African-American capitals of the United States.

With this year's contest, the charges have re-emerged from the campaign of Deputy Mayor Ronald L. Rice, an ally of Mayor James's who is Mr. Booker's strongest remaining opponent.

In a recent interview, Mr. Rice called Mr. Booker a proxy for "ultra-white, ultra-conservative" outsiders seeking to privatize the schools in a Democratic city that is more than 80 percent African-American and Hispanic. He charged that Mr. Booker was seeking to turn Newark into another Milwaukee, where a voucher program has been in place since 1990, with mixed results in terms of student achievement...

 Subscribe in a reader