On a fall afternoon in 2010, the unlikely trio of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg took the stage of the Oprah show to declare their plan to remake American urban education. The scene, which turned ecstatic with the announcement of Zuckerberg’s $100 million pledge to Newark public schools, was the culmination of a pact between Christie and Booker to woo the nation’s top philanthropists into staging an intervention in one of the most dysfunctional education districts in the country.
As it says on the book jacket of The Prize, “they got an education.” Penned by former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, the book is a behind-the-scenes narrative of the deeply flawed effort by outsiders to blow up the Newark school system in hopes of exporting their success nationwide. The engaging work is replete with vignettes of teachers’ and students’ progress and setbacks along the way. Russakoff manages to be a fly on the wall of every important meeting and encounter in the Newark experiment.
The premise was that the money, which included Zuckerberg’s contribution and a matching $100 million gift from a cadre of Christie and Booker donors like financiers Ken Langone and William Ackman, would be used to slaughter sacred cows like teacher seniority. The cash would also fund charter schools and student support programs. Zuckerberg in particular was enthralled with the concept of merit pay, arguing that “star” educators should be compensated based upon output just as his Facebook coders were.
That view collided with the unseemly realities of New Jersey politics. To cut a deal with the teachers’ union, state education commissioner Christopher Cerf and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson doled out $31 million in back pay to teachers that hadn’t seen raises in two years and allotted $21 million in buyouts. Strict seniority laws made it all but impossible to fire teachers outright. The merit pay fund amounted to just $6 million.
Even though $58 million was spent to expand and open glistening charter schools, most parents were not happy. Newark had a tradition of neighborhood-based schooling where students knew one another and could walk to school without any need for bussing. But school closures and map redrawing broke that up. Furthermore, budget cuts to the city’s police force resulted in a spate of violence that took the lives of students’ family members and peers. The one reform parents and students alike saw the most from was in the extra teachers and aides that the money bought to shower attention on the neediest pupils, usually children living in chaos that made it nearly impossible to concentrate in class without such one-on-one help.
Interviews with “star” teachers belie the idea that money is what’s missing in education. To a person, they say that teaching is their calling and they do not care much about bonuses and incentives. Indeed, it seems that the only people intent on getting wealthy are the education industry consultants imported for the overhaul, whose going daily rate was a cool $1,000. Even more offensive was the jargon they used to convey authority, led by the outsider superintendent Anderson: They did “deep dives,” put issues into “buckets,” shaped the “optics” to the public, made sure there was enough “bandwidth,” and strove to make Newark into a “proof point” for reform.
The results matched the empty rhetoric. Newark test scores actually declined from 2011 to 2013, and the new schools consolidated from the old failing ones trailed the rest of the district. But even the initiatives that did help - the charter schools and student aid programs – came in the context of a $200 million one-time investment. As one unusually sharp philanthropic executive observed, “I’ve heard the fear that philanthropy in Newark is creating something that’s not replicable because it costs so much. How many cities can raise a hundred million dollars?”
An equally appropriate question came from Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee superintendent and one of the first prominent African American figures in the education reform movement. Fuller admitted that he and others in the crusade had been guilty of arrogance in their quest to upend urban school districts. “If your approach is to get a lot of smart people in the room and figure out what ‘these people’ need and then implement it, the first issue is who decided that you were smart?” he said.