Sunday, November 25, 2012

Walk, Cory, Walk!

Let the political salivating begin. The prospect of a Cory Booker-Chris Christie throw-down has the twitterverse all atwitter and the the national press sharpening its knives and pens. All that's left is for both candidates to announce their intentions and we'll have a money-soaked affair that will make Linda McMahon's spending for the Connecticut Senate race look like a sale at Woolworth's. Or K-Mart, or S. Klein's. Or whatever the zeitgeist will give us.

If I'm Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and I am decidedly not, I'm going to think long and hard about whether I'm entering this race. He's given a deadline of mid-December for his decision, as has Governor Christie, and I think he should take all the time he needs.

This is a tricky decision for Booker. He has a national reputation, is an excellent speaker, uses the latest technology, is well educated and gained stature because of his work trying and partially succeeding in rebuilding Newark into an entertainment, sports and business destination. He's made some missteps along the way, but for the most part, he's done all he can do on the job.

And then there's education. If you gave me a choice of issues that could trip up a candidate, education would not be first, but this is one of Booker's big problem for next year. For one, he entered into an agreement with Christie to accept $100 million from Facebook's Marc Zuckerberg to finance the Newark public schools. Then he hired Cami Anderson to run the schools and the residents didn't take too kindly to her reformy policies which included closing schools and implementing private sector methods on her employees. And just last week, fueled by Facebook's money, the Newark teachers adopted a contract that incorporates merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations, and almost total administrative control of the hiring and firing process.

Good for Newark. Good for Booker. Bad for education, and potentially bad for a Booker statewide campaign.


Because Booker's education agenda, like Christie's and even president Obama's, is based on misguided and counterproductive policies that sound like they will result in better teaching and learning, but will create a competitive environment that is poison to collegiality and sharing, the cornerstones of effective schools. Add in the fact that no other school district in the state would be able to do this under constrained budgets and state aid reductions, and you have a situation that is unique to Newark and that virtually no other district in New Jersey will want to emulate. In short, he's associated with the very policies that most teachers in state object to, and teachers are a vital Democratic voting bloc. This is his problem. Without the enthusiastic support of the teachers, Booker will most likely lose. It's not that teachers will vote for Christie; they just might not vote for Booker.

Booker needs the teachers who voted for Christie in Ocean, Monmouth and Morris Counties. He needs the teachers who were lukewarm about Jon Corzine in 2009 to come out in force for him in 2013. He needs more of the public workers in Mercer, Middlesex, and southern Somerset. And he needs to make sure that Camden, home of George Norcross, and Essex, home of Joseph DiVincenzo, vote for him in great numbers despite what what will be enormous pressure from both men and political machines to protect what they've won under Governor Christie. And quite honestly, with all of the above educational baggage, I think this will be a great challenge.

What the Democratic Party needs next year is a candidate who understands that private money and testing are not the answers to what ails education. In fact, New Jersey ranks very high nationally in reading, math, SAT and Advanced Placement scores. Most of the suburban areas of the state have fine schools that don't need the kind of overhaul that Christie and the far right have been peddling for the past 10 years. And some urban schools are just as good, turning out high-achieving students that go on to terrific colleges or vocational programs. Better to focus on alleviating poverty and raising expectations in subpar schools than overhauling the entire system.

Cory Booker might yet be able to unite the Democrats behind him in 2013 and win the election. After all, Christie will now need to re-prioritize his agenda because, in the wake of Sandy, tax cuts and job growth will be very difficult to achieve. Plus, there might be enough far right Republicans in New Jersey who will not support the governor because of his perceived role in Mitt Romney's defeat. His near 60% approval ratings will also come down. In short, Chris Christie is beatable, and I think that Cory Booker can be the candidate that defeats him. My concern is that he'll need to be clearer about his education agenda if he wants the wholehearted support of New Jersey's public school teachers.

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