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Booker's Bottom Line: It's a Question of Desire

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Published: 11/21/2006

Not long after he was elected Mayor of Newark this past spring, Cory Booker dined with two young men who had spray-painted death threats to him on the wall of their school. The dinner went well-'""they were good kids," Booker told his listeners at the close of TC's second annual Symposium on Educational Equity - but at one point, the Mayor realized that his guests couldn't decipher their choice of entrees. The irony of the situation struck him as particularly poignant.

"In 1961 my father fought for the right to sit at lunch counters," Booker said, "yet today, in 2006, I find myself sitting around a table in a restaurant with young black men from my neighborhood who can barely read the menu. Blacks may have won the right to sit at the table but clearly not the right to an education. We are failing to educate all our children. This is the great challenge for Newark and for our nation."

Booker-'"a TC Trustee and former Rhodes Scholar-'"called the people of Newark "real Americans who believe in the value of education even though they may not have it for themselves." Like all parents, "their hopes reside in their children," he said. "They grab at the best possible education that they can get for their children. Inner-city parents are often portrayed as not knowing or not caring-'"but this is not true. I know these parents-'"I see what lengths they go to get the best possible education for their children. They use a relative's address to get their child into a school that is miles away from their home but with an excellent reputation. They break into sobs when their child is not selected through a lottery system for the award-winning charter school."

Booker said he supported strong accountability systems for schools and added that he believes in the power of NCLB's goals to motivate students, parents and schools. Nevertheless, he conceded that current accountability measures are problematic, noting that some 30 schools in Newark have been identified as not making "average yearly progress" for four or more years. Booker also told the audience that Newark has received hundreds of million dollars less in federal Title I funding than what was originally appropriated.

"We have some excellent schools in Newark that people stood up and fought for-'"there are islands of excellence that we need to expand into continents of success," the Mayor said. "We will not tolerate failure or mediocrity. This is not a question of ability-'"it is a question of desire."