Dale Russakoff’s new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, is an expose’ of an education reform scheme to make Newark, New Jersey a “symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”
Dr. Susan Berry, writing for Breitbart, relays that the story begins in 2010 when it was announced on the Oprah Winfrey television show that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would be giving Newark’s troubled public school system $100 million. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) and former Newark mayor and now US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), were to make a bipartisan effort at education reform in the city.
Russakoff wrote in the New Yorker last year that reformers compared this effort to the civil rights movement because many of the opponents to reforms were “descendants of the old civil-rights establishment: unions and urban politicians determined to protect thousands of public jobs in cities where secure employment was rare.”
Even though research has shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods influence children’s academic achievement more than classroom instruction, reformers were sure that well-run schools with the best teachers could reverse the effects of poverty, broken homes, and exposure to violence. That was shorthand for charter schools which could operate free from large bureaucracies and union rules.
“We know what works,” Booker and other reformers often said. They blamed vested interests for using poverty as an excuse for failure, and dismissed competing approaches as incrementalism. Education needed “transformational change.”
Large amounts of philanthropic support, which required no oversight, composed the plan, said Russakoff, and Zuckerberg supplied that money while stating that he did not know much about urban education reform. She adds that like many other liberal “spending” social justice programs, the plan put money in the pockets of education consultants, but offered little help to kids.
The New York Times noted that almost half of the money was spent on new labor contracts and out of the $200 million in Zuckerberg’s money and the matching grant, $21 million went to “buying out unwanted teachers and other staff members.” Zuckerberg did not know that New Jersey state law mandated the seniority system he was trying to eliminate.
School reformers have taken exception to their portrayal by Russakoff, but she stands firm on her opinion that teachers unions are the primary hindrance to real change in the nation’s public schools. She points out that the main difference in Newark is that more than 30% of students in the school district are now attending charter schools, and the result of that change is good and bad.
Even after the Newark reform plan, Zuckerberg still donated $120 million to schools in low-income communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, the New York Times reports that Zuckerberg now plans to collaborate with parents, teachers, and school leaders on his latest education reform project. He and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, wrote in May 2014:
[W]e’ve seen that targeted investments can be catalysts for much bigger changes in communities, and give vital support to leaders and organizations. In Newark, a lot of the work we started is still underway, but we’ve already seen some good results.
Russakoff spent four and a half years tracking the Zuckerberg donation in Newark and found that without oversight and direction, even a donation of that size can fail to help schools. Nicole Gorman, reporting for Education World, says the first problem Russakoff found had to do with the goal – to set out to make Newark a national model on which education reform could be based.
“Education in any city is not something that you can bring a model to and fix it. It’s a very human, granular, history-based challenge. And to see it as something that you can have a startup model for, that you can create a proof point and then scale up nationally, is just a complete misconception,” she said.
The $25 million that went to charter schools actually created excellent schools for children, but Russakoff compared that success against the mistake of the $20 million spent on consultants.
“There was this notion that consultants had the answers, and you could hire expertise, and pay for it at enormous prices, on the assumption that this was going to bring the magic answer, the silver bullet to Newark. And it was an enormous amount of money that went towards something that really didn’t have a lot of returns. I don’t think you could find any way that consultant money helped children.”
The ultimate prize, she says, is not a national model, but the children’s right to a proper education.