In an impassioned speech that drew from the experiences of students in many inner city communities, Cory Booker — the Stanford, Yale, and Oxford-educated mayor of Newark, N.J. — described the challenges facing public education across the United States, captivating an audience of educators and policy makers.
“If you don’t have a high school education in America, you are chained to limited options,” he told 500 audience members at the Goldman Sachs/Stanford University Global Education Conference held June 22.
The stakes are even higher for minorities, Booker said, since black males who do not complete high school are more likely to end up in prison than to land a full-time job. In New Jersey, he said, blacks comprise only 13% of the population, while 60% of all prison inmates are black.
As an example of how schools can let low-income minority students down, Booker cited San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall High School, which he said 2 years ago graduated only 10 college-ready students out of a class of 600. “This is to me an affront to everything we claim that we are. Where is the moral outrage?” Booker said. “I may not be called to be on a beach in Normandy. I may not be called to be on a bus in a freedom ride. But, I will not allow this to happen in the United States of America on my watch.” Being poor is not synonymous with low educational achievement, Booker added, since the highest-performing school in New Jersey’s Essex County is in Newark, where more than 80% of the student body is low income. “Don’t tell me what our nation can’t do,” he said. “I sit back every day in wide-eyed wonder at the collective achievements of our larger American community.”
His zeal to improve urban education has won him advocates in high places. Last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million in matching funds to help improve Newark’s schools. So far, Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates and influential technology venture capitalist John Doerr have also pitched in, according to Wired.com.
Booker described the effort to “heal the racial gap in education” as “the hallmark of this generation, the determining factor of the destiny of this generation.”
“I know for a fact that you cannot have a leading economy and have a lagging educational system,” he told the group. “You cannot lead as a country when your education system is failing.”