The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?, journalist Dale Russakoff's riveting account of how a $100 million pledge from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg aimed at turning around the public school system in Newark, New Jersey, went very wrong, very quickly, opens with a scene from 2009. Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark and a rising star in the Democratic Party (he would be elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2013), has invited New Jersey governor-elect Chris Christie, a Republican (and today a candidate for his party's presidential nomination), to join him on a late-night tour of some of Newark's poorest neighborhoods. Sitting in the back seat of an SUV driven by Booker's security detail, the governor-elect is hearing all about Booker's approach to reducing the city's sky-high crime rates. But Booker, according to Russakoff, has another agenda on this particular evening: to enlist Christie's help in transforming public education in the city.

And who wouldn't want that? Newark schools had been failing students, 95 percent of whom were black or Latino in 2009, for decades. "In twenty-three of the district's seventy-five schools fewer than thirty percent of children in grades three through eight could read at grade level," writes Russakoff. "The high school graduation rate was fifty-four percent, and more than ninety percent of graduates who attended the local community college required remedial classes." Operationally, the district was a disaster. "Clerks made up thirty percent of the central bureaucracy...yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate. Test and attendance data had not been entered for months, and computers routinely spat out report cards bearing one child's name and another child's grades...."

It was a daunting challenge, but Booker believed that with "Christie's absolute legal authority and [his own] mayoral bully pulpit, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, weaken tenure protections, [and] reward and punish teachers based on their students' test scores." And so the two men, up-and-coming members of "the growing national movement seeking to reinvent public education" — a movement that included some of the nation's wealthiest philanthropists as well as President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan — made a pact then and there to fix the city's schools and, in the process, position Newark as an education reform model for struggling urban districts across the country.

Months later, Booker presented Christie with a confidential proposal titled "Newark Public Schools – A Reform Plan." The plan described a process that was top down (so as to avoid "being taken captive by unions and machine politicians") and "called for an 'infusion of philanthropic support'." Enter Zuckerberg, whom Booker greatly admired. The mayor had learned, through his extensive network, that the young tech billionaire was contemplating making a "significant philanthropic move" in the area of education. The two men eventually connected, in the summer of 2010, at the annual Sun Valley gathering of movers and shakers hosted by retired financier Herb Allen, and, after dinner on the deck of Allen's townhouse, they went for a walk. According to Russakoff, Zuckerberg told Booker "he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make a difference and create a national model." Booker responded with his pitch, and a month later he sent the Facebook co-founder a proposal that included a six-point agenda and a request for $100 million over five years — the number chosen "largely for its size and the public attention it would draw...." Zuckerberg agreed, writes Russakoff, "with the caveat that Booker would have to match it with another $100 million from other donors."

Booker's next move was to enlist Christie's help. He knew that resistance from the teachers' union and district employees would be fierce, having earlier told the governor in a confidential report that "real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously." There was, after all, a lot at stake in who exercised control over "the prize": the school district's billion-dollar-a-year budget.

In many respects, however, the top-down approach favored by all three men turned out to be the plan's undoing, beginning with the way Newark residents first heard about it. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah one afternoon in the fall of 2010 to announce the plan, hoping the national attention would help the mayor raise the additional $100 million in matching funds. But news of the imminent transformation of the district came as a complete surprise to the people who would be most directly affected by the changes — the city's teachers, parents, and students.

Only after the announcement did Booker embark on a community engagement campaign, hiring an expensive New York City-based consultant "with no experience on the ground in Newark" to manage the campaign. At the same time, Booker and his team determined that the "public face of the engagement effort" would be a series of eleven town hall-style meetings and hired local activists to knock on doors across the city and encourage residents to attend. Residents were assured that their voices truly did matter, and at one forum Booker spoke to the need for "bottom-up, teacher-driven reforms" and a "community vision for change."  

Thanks to the efforts of Booker's team and community activists, Newarkers of all ages turned out for the meetings, reflecting a "palpable consensus" in the community that the city's schools needed to be improved quickly and drastically. But residents who had pledged to volunteer were never contacted, and nothing ever came of the community engagement campaign. In Russakoff's account, a board member of the Foundation for Newark's Future, which was founded to administer Zuckerberg's gift, said it wasn't "real community engagement. It was public relations," while a senior aide to Booker deemed the consultant's work on the campaign "a boondoggle." As the grassroots activists who had worked to mobilize the community later learned, the agenda for change had been finalized by Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg before the campaign even began.

Russakoff has her own theories as to why. "Philanthropy is by definition undemocratic," she writes, "its priorities set by wealthy donors and trustees." As such, it offers little possibility for community influence or oversight. Meanwhile, it was not rare for consultants to be paid $1,000 a day for their work. No surprise, then, that opponents of the reformers' plan, whose ranks quickly swelled, often demanded, "Where'd the money go?"

In a city that's seen its share of graft and corruption, the reformer's lack of transparency was, as one community leader put it, "the average Newarker's nightmare." The plan developed by Booker and his aides and backed by Christie and Zuckerberg "activated the city's deepest and most racialized fears" of wealthy, usually white, people profiting off their schools while the city's kids fell further behind each year. As Shavar Jeffries, the former president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and an education reform advocate himself, told Russakoff: [Reform is seen as] "colonial to people who've been here for decades...it's very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in cooperation" with them. For example, Booker, Christie, Zuckerberg, and their fellow reformers had hoped to offer parents and students in the city a greater degree of choice by increasing the number of charter schools; instead, five years after the One Newark initiative was unveiled, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating several complaints of civil rights violations stemming from the plan.

The Prize is a cautionary tale for reform advocates and philanthropists who have convinced themselves that they must "go big" to achieve "transformational change" while ignoring the need for community consensus, especially around something as important as how our kids are educated. While Booker had hoped to create a model for urban school districts nationwide, Russakoff performs a valuable public service by helping the reader understand that no two school districts are alike and that it is essential to acknowledge and listen to what hardworking teachers, administrators, coaches, parents, and civic leaders have to say. They were the ones, for example, who knew that school closings in Newark, a district with no bussing system, would force some children to walk through contested gang territory to get to their new schools.

In itself, Russakoff's clear-eyed reporting, informed by more than fifteen years on the ground in Newark, offers a compelling counterargument to the top-down approach long favored by education reformers in both the public and private sectors. To her enduring credit, The Prize lets readers hear the voices of people, many of them poor and marginalized, who too often are ignored and, in the process, provides an important lesson that education reformers everywhere would do well to heed.