Sen. Cory Booker, then a Newark city councilman, made the case for school vouchers at an Acton sponsored October 2000 event at the Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids saying, “The cost of not doing the program is having continuing generations of kids chained to failing schools when they could be easily liberated if the parents were given the right to choose where they go with their money.”
School vouchers were then a hot topic in Michigan as Michiganders were debating Proposal 1 (2000), the Michigan Vouchers and Teacher Amendment, a proposed state constitutional amendment:
The proposed constitutional amendment would:
1) Eliminate ban on indirect support of students attending nonpublic schools through tuition vouchers, credits, tax benefits, exemptions or deductions, subsidies, grants or loans of public monies or property.
2) Allow students to use tuition vouchers to attend nonpublic schools in districts with a graduation rate under 2/3 in 1998-1999 and districts approving tuition vouchers through school board action or a public vote. Each voucher would be limited to ½ of state average per-pupil public school revenue.
3) Require teacher testing on academic subjects in public schools and in nonpublic schools redeeming tuition vouchers.
4) Adjust minimum per-pupil funding from 1994-1995 to 2000-2001 level.
The proposal suffered a crushing defeat with 69.1% of Michigan voters voting no.
The Acton sponsored event was a debate between the now Senator from New Jersey and presidential candidate Booker who made the case for vouchers and Wendy Wagenheim of the ACLU of Michigan who argued against them before an audience of 400 teachers, students, parents, and community leaders. The debate was hosted at the Wealthy Theater and moderated by Woodtv 8’s Rick Albin and Wendell Edwards.
Woodtv 8 covered the event providing important context as well as some debate highlights:
Last week in The New Republic Jennifer C. Berkshire reported on the event in her story, ‘Cory Booker Was Once a Foot Soldier for Betsy DeVos,’ saying of Booker that:
He was dispatched to the aptly named Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids to speak for the initiative. Officially, he was there at the behest of the Acton Institute, a local conservative think tank that combines classical liberalism with the prosperity gospel (Betsy DeVos served on its board). To argue against the initiative, the ACLU of Michigan had sent its legislative director, Wendy Wagenheim, who warned that school vouchers would decimate the state’s urban districts, though Booker wouldn’t be around to see the damage: “I’m not flying out to New Jersey when this is over, as he is,” Wagenheim pointed out. “I will be here after this decision is made.” Booker parried with arguments that would soon become standard conservative talking points: Voucher opponents, he said, always prophesied doom and gloom as they sought to defend a system that was failing many children. The money doesn’t belong to the system, but to parents.
Berkshire’s characterization of the venue and the Acton Institute is grossly mistaken.
The Wealthy Theater is a community theater located in the Baxter neighborhood which, while much revitalized in the last twenty years, is still among Grand Rapid’s poorest with 45.6% of the population living below the poverty level. It is precisely these families, who otherwise could not afford private education, that have the most to gain from school choice.
Berkshire’s characterization of the Acton Institute as a think tank which, “combines classical liberalism with the prosperity gospel,” is baffling. On this very blog the prosperity gospel has been called a heresy and its flawed anthropology compared to Liberation Theology.
Berkshire is right that Booker has distanced himself from his earlier commitment to school choice, despite his insistence that his position remains unchanged. I hope that Senator Booker remembers that the alternative to school choice is, as he argued here in Grand Rapids, “having continuing generations of kids chained to failing schools when they could be easily liberated if the parents were given the right to choose where they go with their money.”
Video courtesy of Woodtv 8