How Politics Trumped a Mark Zuckerberg-funded Dream for U.S. Schools

Despite a $100m. gift from the Facebook founder, payoffs and patronage conspired to thwart the much-needed reforms of an inner-city school system in New Jersey, author Dale Russakoff tells Haaretz.

From left: Chris Christie, Oprah Winfrey, Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg on Sept. 24, 2010, the day they announced the $100 million donation to Newark's schools.
AP

When journalist Dale Russakoff heard the news, five years ago, that Mark Zuckerberg had pledged $100 million to help reform the education system in Newark, she saw a book waiting to be written.

The resident of a suburb of this New Jersey city some 25 kilometers west of New York, Russakoff was a 28-year veteran of the New York bureau of The Washington Post, where she had often covered education stories. And she had grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the final years of Jim Crow, when blacks and whites were required by law to drink from separate water fountains.

For at least 50 years, Newark has been synonymous for many Americans with urban decay and racial disharmony. Once a vibrant industrial center, in the decades following World War II, the city watched its blue-collar jobs move to cheaper labor markets both in the U.S. and abroad, and saw most of its white population depart for the suburbs. In 1967, this racially polarized city erupted in nearly a week of rioting that left 26 people dead, nearly all of them blacks shot by police and National Guardsmen.

Four decades later, things were beginning to look up in Newark. Democrat Cory Booker, who in May 2010 was elected to a second term as mayor, was attracting national attention for his attempts to turn the city around. A locally raised African American who had studied at Stanford and at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar before attending law school at Yale, Booker knew how to talk to the type of white corporate executives and hedge-fund owners who dreamed of rebuilding America’s inner cities. He had convinced Prudential Financial to build a new headquarters tower in Newark, and had attracted Panasonic to move its North American offices there.

Unemployment, however, was far above the national average, and the city remained one of America’s most violent. The schools, too, had not yet made a comeback. Only 54 percent of Newark high-school students ended up graduating, and less than 40 percent of children in grades 4 through 8 were reading or doing math at their respective grade level. Yet, the annual financial outlay per student in Newark was nearly $20,000 – one of the highest figures in the nation. Clearly something was wrong.

The idea of approaching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2010 was all of 26, for a gift was born of an unlikely alliance between Mayor Booker and the then-newly elected Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Though a political odd couple, both men identified with the influential “educational reform” movement, and agreed that Newark schools could benefit from shock treatment based on that movement’s principles — eliminating the blanket job protection that tenure grants public-school teachers, and employing a free-market ethos to reward teachers and principals based on their students’ standardized test scores.

Awaiting salvation

Prudential Financial Inc. headquarters stands in Newark, New Jersey, on May 12, 2009.
Bloomberg News

For some two decades, the key buzz-phrase in the American school-reform movement has been charter schools, hybrid institutions that receive most of their funding from public sources, but are exempt by law from many of the strictures that encumber public schools: Their teachers do not belong to unions and can be rewarded and fired on the basis of performance, and the schools can pick and choose their students.

Although the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg plan was no more detailed than an architect’s rendering of a proposed building, all three men agreed more charter schools were a must. But the figure of $100 million, which quickly became $200 million when Booker committed to soliciting a matching figure from other like-minded philanthropists, was not the estimated price tag of an agreed-upon program. It was, rather, the somewhat arbitrary sum that happened to be available — an impressive one, to be sure, but less so when you consider that the annual budget of the Newark school district in 2010 was approximately $1 billion.

As Russakoff describes in her book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 246 pages, $27), it is clear that the men all wanted more accountability in the schools: They believed principals should be able to choose teachers they had confidence in, and that teachers should no longer have guaranteed job security, not to mention automatic raises without demonstrating their effectiveness.

They were sure that Newark’s bloated schools administration needed major streamlining, and that the teachers’ union needed to have its wings clipped. They assumed that the planets were aligned in a way to assure their success: There were like-minded political leaders in city hall and in the state capital, Trenton, not to mention the fact that the state government had taken the reins of the school district out of municipal hands 15 years earlier and thus was in a position to impose its will on the local government and its elected school board.

More was riding on the plan than just the future of the roughly 30,000 school-age children of Newark. Booker and Christie, both of whom had their sights on higher political office – the mayor ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, and won, and the governor is competing for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – believed that with $200 million, they could not only turn around Newark’s educational system in five years, but also develop a model that could be transplanted to troubled school districts across America. So confident were they of this that they convinced the publicity-shy Zuckerberg to announce his pledge and that goal on “Oprah” in September 2010.

Two-hundred-million dollars later, as Russakoff recounts, Newark’s schools still await salvation. The school superintendent appointed by Trenton, Cami Anderson, resigned this past June, after a four-year tenure characterized by often-hostile relations with city residents. Nearly a year before that, Ras Baraka – a longtime Newark high-school principal and lifelong resident whose election campaign largely revolved around his opposition to the reform plan – replaced Booker in city hall.

As Russakoff painfully details, some $90 million of the $200 million ended up going to cover the exorbitant costs of paying off the powerful teachers' union, without whose agreement the reform plan could not proceed. And even with that, the union did not accept a key element of the state’s demands: eliminating seniority provisions so that layoffs could be decided based on merit, not the amount of time one had worked for the system.

Russakoff’s main criticism, however, is directed at the way in which the entire process was handled in Newark. The politicians were in so much of a hurry to implement a reform program that they only went through the motions of consulting with citizens of Newark, even as they were declaring that the dialogue was genuine. The residents were jaded enough to know they were being manipulated, and according to the author, this made them unreceptive even to ideas they might well have applauded in a less poisoned atmosphere.

‘Lousy, unrealistic goal’

Haaretz spoke with Dale Russakoff by phone recently about the drama that ensued when the storybook dream of a billionaire’s generosity to cure a very sick school system came up against the realities of New Jersey politics and a suspicious Newark public.

My sense it that, despite it all, you think Newark is in a better place than it was five years ago, that positive things have emerged from this unhappy saga.

“I do agree with that, although I don’t think that they achieved anything close to what they set out to achieve. But that was also a lousy, unrealistic goal. What became incredibly clear was that, getting the resources to the school and classrooms, and having really strong principals who can pick their own teachers, and hire the staff that they need to support the kids – whether charters or districts – that is really the promising way to think about how to address the question of schools in the United States.

“Charters, nationally, don’t out-perform district schools. But in Newark, the two biggest charter networks are much better schools. As a group, their kids are doing much better than the district schools kids.

Dale Russakoff, author of “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools.” "It’s so obvious," she says, "that the real enemy is the state of the community, the violence, the poverty, and the lack of job opportunities. And everything that surrounds these kids, every day."
Sarah Weiser

“True, they don’t have the same percentage of kids [living] in extreme poverty. That makes up some of the difference in performance. But it doesn’t make up all of it. And when you walk into those charter schools, and you see how much support they have at the school level — first of all, they have the freedom to pick all their teachers, which the district school doesn’t.

“In the district schools that were ‘renewed,’ where principals were able to pick their own teachers, there was a real noticeable change in the whole culture of learning. They worked together to get buy-in from parents and from kids, and the behavior got a lot better, and just that sense of collaboration between principals and teachers, and between teachers with each other got a lot better.”

Have you seen signs that people are starting to conceptualize the problem in a less ideological way?

“It’s hard to say, because I don’t think there are just two camps or views. Among the very wealthy philanthropists who are trying very hard to influence the shape of education, there are some who just don’t believe in the public system: They believe that entrepreneurial private approaches and market incentives are going to have a better effect on learning. And so, there’s a huge push for more charter schools, and having teachers evaluated by their students’ test scores, even though all the research shows that that’s not a valid way to measure teachers’ performance.

“And then there are unions, which just see charter schools as a threat to their members’ jobs, and they’re against them on principle. So that hardens the conversation to the point that there’s really not room to discuss what it is that is working in charter schools, when they outperform public schools.”

‘Fixing’ the community

The most powerful thing I took away from your book is how labor-intensive and difficult it is to make a difference with an individual child from a very deprived background. How you need a lot of people working on a lot of different levels, and with the entire family. Are the administrators beginning to understand this? And do you think it’s possible to “fix” an inner-city school without first fixing the community it’s part of?

“I’ve actually gotten a lot of reactions from people in the educational reform movement who tended to have the same philosophy as those who led this [particular] reform effort. And they are basically very – I don’t want to say chastened, but they have said, ‘If you read this book and you think that your biases have been confirmed, you’re not trying hard enough.’ And it seems that there’s a lot of openness to the idea that this is about a lot more than just the idea of changing incentives for teachers. Thinking that this [alone] is going to change education is really missing the mark.

“But what you asked about poverty is right on the money. Because the educational reform movement has this mantra that says: Poverty is an excuse for failure. And that, really, it’s these schools that are failing; it’s not poverty that’s making them fail.

“It’s true that in many cases schools are not operating at a level that can serve the kids that they could. But it’s also just so obvious that the real enemy is the state of the community, and the violence, and the poverty, and the lack of job opportunities. And everything that surrounds these kids, every day.

What biases of your own did you see reversed by your work on this book?

“I came into it with a lot more questions than biases. I really didn’t understand education. I was amazed by the numbers that I saw of charter schools and the student performance, how much better it was – in some cases. Those that were successful were so much more successful, wildly so than the district schools in Newark.

“I guess that my initial gut feeling was that schools should be publicly governed, because that what was democracy was built on. That parents and the community need to have a voice in education, that these are community resources.

“As I got into it, and saw this one particular charter school [in Newark, SPARK Academy] – which I do think is in many ways the ideal, and there were charter schools that didn’t come close to this – I just wondered, if this is so much better for kids, why am I stuck on this commitment to publicly governed schools, if the politics around them makes it so hard to serve the kids? And I don’t just mean political patronage and unions; I mean the inability to get the money to the kids and to the classrooms to support them.

“If I were a parent in Newark, and the only choice I had was the neighborhood school that wasn’t run well and didn’t have the resources it needed to serve my child, or the teachers or a principal who were committed to going the extra mile, and there was a charter school that did, I would be trying to get my kid into the charter school. And I just felt that, who am I to say that, because I think this system is better for democracy, that that parent shouldn’t have that option? It just isn’t right.”

Sporadic attention

Were you surprised by how disappointed you were by Cory Booker’s performance?

“I was surprised. He had said at the very outset that he was going to make education the No. 1 priority of his second term. And he didn’t. He basically persuaded Zuckerberg to give all this money, and then he paid attention to education very sporadically. He didn’t work to create political education in the city, among the residents of Newark, about what does it take to raise the performance of your public schools. He didn’t make it a top priority, and I thought that was a terrible loss. Because the community just rejected the idea of reform wholesale because it was being done in such a peremptory way.

“The word that I heard most often in Newark was ‘disrespect.’ The overwhelming feeling – and it’s a historic feeling – is that Newark has been disrespected by history, beginning with urban renewal, and white flight, and disinvestment. That just played into something that’s in the DNA of the city [where the attitude is:] ‘Do-gooders with lots of money, who are invariably white, come here and tell us how they’re going to make things better for our kids, and then they move on – and we have to pick up the pieces.’

“And this just fit that model, and that scenario. There was so little sense of trust that this could be something that worked out well for our children.”

Booker seems to be one of the main objects of anger among parents.

“You’d go to public meetings and people would be very dismissive of him. It was kind of a black backlash against Booker. If you paid attention to how he was received on the national scene – Oprah Winfrey introduced him as the ‘rock star mayor of Newark, New Jersey.’ He was a celebrity; he was seen as the urban superman. Back home, that was definitely not the way he was seen. Because they had the overwhelming feeling that he was using Newark as a stepping-stone, not that he was committed to governing the city as his own city.

When he was running for mayor, Ras Baraka came off as a rabble-rouser, if not a demagogue. Yet you note that after his election, he was open to compromise, and that he was willing to accept the arguments of his opponents. A New York Times article last summer made a similar point. What can you tell us about his first year and a half?

“I think the surprise that that [NYT] article reflected was that of so many of the establishment business people in Newark – [and] by that I mean white people: that he has been so pragmatic, that he’s not a bomb thrower, and that he wants to govern his city like a responsible mayor, on behalf of all of the players in the city and the stakeholders, and he wants investment and development.

“And why wouldn’t he? If you go and talk to any serious school principal or teacher, you won’t find an ideologue, you’ll find a pragmatist.

“You have to do what’s right for your kids. And there isn’t an ideological answer to that ... I think he’s a very, very smart politician, a natural. It’s in his bones. He’s very good at going out and meeting people who completely disagree with him, and having a civil conversation, and finding a way to disagree civilly.

“But, you know, Baraka is also facing a real pivot point. He used to be a very vociferous opponent of all charters. But now, about 50 percent of the African American parents have kids in charters, and that’s going to require him to make a real pivot as a politician eventually.

“He’s already done that to some extent. He’s saying, if the charters can serve kids better than the district schools, let them take over entire district schools, don’t let them just take over a kindergarten through fourth grade; take kindergarten through eighth grade, and show they can run a whole school. That’s different from just saying, I’m against charters.

“I think he’s wrestling with how to be a politician in this new reality. This is really the new order of many major cities, that when charters come to serve a really significant percentage, even half of the kids, in the cities, that no one has figured out how to stabilize the public schools.

“How do you make sure that district schools have the resources they need? Because of the unions and civil service protections, they can’t just downsize on a dollar-for-dollar basis as kids leave the schools. They have all these legacy costs left over, and that means that the schools are going to be losing support.

“Newark is going to probably have 50 percent of its kids in charter schools in the not-too-distant future, and that’s also roughly what it is in D.C., and maybe in Detroit. Philadelphia is at about 30 percent.

One-time Jewish bastion

Were there any anti-Semitic undertones to this struggle? Ras Baraka’s father, the late poet Amiri Baraka, expressed some shockingly anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments toward the end of his life, and I know that there were those who feared similar attitudes from his son, especially because Mark Zuckerberg is Jewish, and because so many people identified with the reform movement are Jewish too.

“I did not [sense such undertones]. And when I look back, I have to say that I thought that was fascinating. That’s a knee-jerk reaction – the Jews are coming to take us over – especially with Newark’s history, it was such a Jewish city. And Jews left en masse in the period leading up to and after the [1967] riots.

“But I never once heard that, and I never heard that from Baraka. And I had a lot of conversations with him in private, as well as witnessing his public speeches, and I would be there when he was talking with all-black, very agitated audiences, and if that had been an undercurrent, I would have heard it.

“There is a sense that the white people are coming back to get us. That the white people used to run Newark, and they’re coming back, and they’re going to get us. And I heard people saying that so many times, and they always said, ‘the white people,’ and they never said, 'the Jews.' I think that the sense of Jews as a threat to the black people of Newark, takes a back seat to the idea of white people with money. New York, Wall Street, that sort of thing.

I was impressed with the fact that you didn’t make the Zuckerbergs the center of the book, and also with the way they kept a low profile. Did they speak candidly with you?

“You know, they didn’t want to say anything critical. What they said was that this never should have been something that was [done] in opposition to the community. They thought they were supporting something that the community wanted, and that by giving money to Booker and Christie, they were supporting the community.”

But you had several direct conversations with them?

“I talked to them twice. I was also really struck by the way they changed what they wanted to do with their philanthropy. They had this idea, based on the way Booker sold this to them, that they would create a model in Newark for how to turn around all urban schools, and that their philanthropy would spend the foreseeable future going from one city to the next implementing this model. It was a management-systems change from the top, but it had no money going to the classroom or trying to figure out how to support the teacher-student relationship at the classroom level.

“Now I think they’re much more focused on that. They have the staff of their philanthropy talking extensively to parents and teachers in district and charter schools to try to figure out what the needs are they need to meet. And I think it’s really to their credit that they came into this with such an open mind. He was 26 years-old when this started! It wasn’t as if he had a wealth of experience in anything. But in particular, he said, from the outset: I know nothing about philanthropy and nothing about education, and he wanted to use the experience to become a better philanthropist.”

(Subsequent to Russakoff’s conversation with Haaretz, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged, in a December 1 post on Facebook, to give away during their lifetimes 99 percent of their shares in the company – valued today at $46 billion – to charitable causes. Those causes will continue to include education, and also health, equality and “advancing human potential.”)