Cary Booker, older brother of senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker (D., N.J.), landed a top education job in the New Jersey governor’s administration in June despite an abysmal record leading a charter school in Tennessee, according to reporting by NJ Advance Media.
Cary Booker in 2010 co-founded Omni Prep Academy, a charter school in Memphis. After years of financial woes, operational failings, and substandard educational performance by students, the school was ordered to close in 2016.
Teachers and parents of students interviewed by NJ Advance Media say Omni Prep faced serious challenges in its first year. The school opened with no curriculum or books, and failed to provide proper initial training for teachers. With no kitchen or cafeteria, the school resorted to heating frozen chicken pot pie and bringing in pizza, which one former student said was cold. The school had no playground, so recess was held in the grass outside. Special education students did not receive required services, and not all staff remembers were fingerprinted for their background checks. Some teachers quit after the school could not pay them.
Booker was responsible for "overseeing the daily campus operation" at Omni Prep, but teachers said he rarely appeared at the school except to give tours for prospective donors or to make an announcement.
One teacher said she "[had] no idea what he did" during the first year of operation.
After its grueling first year, Omni Prep received good press after a visit from then Newark mayor Cory Booker. Cary Booker later transitioned into the role of vice president at Omni Prep, a position that did not require him to appear at the school as frequently.
In 2016, Shelby County School District ordered the school closed for underperformance. One top Tennessee education official said the school "continually failed to meet the most minimal of performance standards." Omni Prep suffered from poor student test scores on state math and reading exams.
While his venture in founding and leading a charter school was a failure, Booker’s career prospects in education only ballooned when he moved to New Jersey. Booker worked as a policy consultant for New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s campaign in 2017, later becoming his senior education advisor. This June, the governor appointed Booker to leader of New Jersey’s Division of Early Childhood Education, which draws a $150,000 salary.
Booker’s new job deals with the education of New Jersey children from birth to first grade. But Booker has no experience working in pre-schools. An open records request from NJ Advance Media for Booker’s resume revealed that his primary experience working with young students was at Omni Prep.
Gov. Murphy and the State Education Commissioner insist that Booker is fit for the position, citing his decades of experience working in education and his leadership skills.
Some of Booker’s former colleagues at Omni Prep say that his tenure at the charter school should disqualify him from a top education role though, and suspect that his relation to Senator Cory Booker explains his meteoric rise in the New Jersey education administration.
Donnie Houston, a former Omni Prep principal, said "the only reason he got that job is his brother. I don’t know who would entrust him with that kind of authority, autonomy, and responsibility."
Former Omni Prep teacher Madison Major said she predicted that Cary Booker’s time at the school would come under scrutiny years late.
"When Cory Booker made a name for himself, all the Omni Prep teachers that I still talk to and am friends with, we all looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to come back. We are going to have to talk about Omni, because Cary is going to get some special treatment because of his last name. And here we are," Major said.