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Cory Booker Calls for Boost in Education Spending, Support for 'High-Quality Charter Schools'

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Like many of his competitors, Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker wants to significantly expand federal resources for K-12 education. The New Jersey's senator's newly released education plan calls for tripling Title I funding, which is targeted to schools with high enrollments of students from low-income families, and for the creation of a $10 billion grant program to incentivize states to design more equitable school funding systems.

Unlike many of his competitors, Booker's plan calls for support of "high-quality charter schools" and proposes overhauling—not eliminating—the federal Charter School Program, which has $440 million in funding this year.

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The plan, released Friday, touches on some issues that have been a hot potato for the senator. He has faced some criticism for his partnering with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark schools during Booker's tenure as mayor to help support a new teachers' contract in the city; his closing of underenrolled schools and opening of new charters; and for his past involvement with American Federation for Children, a school choice group founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (He later voted against her confirmation.)

Though he is listed as a current sponsor of a bill to reauthorize the D.C. voucher program, Booker's education plan says he would "oppose public funding for vouchers and tax credits that take money away from public schools and send money to private schools."

More broadly, Booker says his education plan is designed to address the inequalities he faced as child of parents who fought housing discrimination to move into a neighborhood "with good public schools, which in the 1960s were very often in all-white neighborhoods."

"For millions of American kids, the U.S. public education system is second-to-none, providing world-class education and positioning them to compete and win in the new global economy," his plan says. "But for others, serious disparities remain, the result of systemic and structural barriers."

Booker pledges that his Education Department would "ensure that the equity protections of the Every Student Succeeds Act are improving equity for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, English-learners, and students who are homeless or in foster care." Some civil rights groups have criticized DeVos, saying she didn't hold states to high enough standards when she reviewed their plans to comply with the federal education law.

He also calls for expansion of home-visiting services and early-education programs for children from low-income families.

Boosting School Funding

Booker joins South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders among the Democratic candidates in calling for tripled Title I funds. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow candidate, has proposed quadrupling the grant funding.

As we've written previously, getting a green light from Congress for such a big federal spending increase may be difficult. Title I will get about $16 billion this year; a spending bill passed by House Democrats last spring would increase that by $1 billion, or 6.9 percent.

"Funding would also be used for investments that have been shown to improve student outcomes, like raising teacher pay, increasing teacher training, and reducing class sizes," Booker's plan says. Districts have broad latitude in how they spend Title I funding, and ensuring such conditions are followed would require amending the law, which other candidates have also proposed.

Booker's proposal for a $10 billion grant program to spur states to create more equitable funding systems also calls for technical assistance to assist those transitions. His plan includes an oft-cited statistic from a report by EdBuild, an advocacy organization that pushes for equitable school funding, which found a $23 billion gap between the amount of money spent on predominantly white school districts and predominantly nonwhite school districts.

He also proposes $500 million in federal funds for community schools, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, more rigorous education civil rights enforcement, and guidance for state and local desegregation efforts and equity audits.

His plan does not identify a funding source for that new spending.

Booker's Plans for Teachers

To "empower and elevate the teaching profession," Booker's plan calls for the passage of the STRIVE Act, a bill he introduced in the Senate that would forgive student debt for teachers after seven years of working in low-income schools.

He also calls for passage of the What You Can Do for Your Country Act, a bill he's co-sponsored with competitors for the Democratic nomination—Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren—that would overhaul and expand the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. It would forgive half of a recipient's student debt after five years in public service and all of it after 10 years.

He also proposes doubling grants that cover the costs of education for teachers in high-needs areas, creating a program to support teacher preparation in high-needs areas, incentivizing states to close disparities between teachers' salaries and those of other professionals, and passing bills that would strengthen teachers' rights to organize.

Charter Schools

Candidates including Warren and Sanders have called for ending federal spending on charter schools, but Booker has pushed back, insisting that they provide an option for children without strong neighborhood schools.

His plan says he would support "high-quality charters by allowing them to expand when they help meet local community needs," and promote "sharing of best practices, like curriculum innovations and and professional development."

He would also amend the federal charter school program to target spending to more than charter expansion, focusing more on existing charter schools by using grants to "improve enrollment systems, understanding and mitigating impacts on home districts, supporting special education initiatives, improving cooperation between small charter operators, fostering collaboration between charters and other public schools, and supporting diversity in enrollment."

Like Warren and Sanders, Booker supports ending federal funding for "charters granted to a for-profit entity." His plan calls for "ending conflicts of interest in charter school management like incentive payments for recruitment," but it does not suggest how he would accomplish this on a federal level. Booker also wants to incentivize the inclusion of parents on charter school boards and encourage states to strengthen standards for charter authorizers, charter school performance, and transparency by charter operators. 

The Booker campaign released the plan a day before a panel of 2020 candidates discussed education at an MSNBC forum in Pittsburgh Saturday. Booker was scheduled to speak at the event, which was sponsored by teachers' unions and groups that are skeptical of charter schools, but he cancelled his weekend events to recover from the flu.

Photo: Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., addresses the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner reception in Washington in 2018. --Cliff Owen/AP-File


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