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This is not a new article. It was published last May in The New Yorker. For some reason, I did not post it at the time. It was an oversight, for sure. The article is an absorbing and disturbing look into the “reform” movement. Save it to read when you have about 30 minutes. It is a long and fascinating description by veteran journalist Dale Russakoff of what happened to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark. It seems to have evaporated over a four-year period into the pockets of consultants, advisors, and other reformy hotshots. I was going to use the word “leeches” but decided that was too strong. In fact, as you will see when you read the article, a horde of organizations and people flocked to get a piece of the action. Lots of people enjoyed Zuckerberg’s largesse, but they weren’t the children of Newark. And it wasn’t just Zuckerberg’s $100 million. He insisted that his $100 million be matched with another $100 million; other super-wealthy philanthropists and reform groups stepped up with big contributions. When a local philanthropist offered $1 million, he was turned away because the amount was too small.
Russakoff is not anti-charter. At one point, Russakoff notes parenthetically that a son teaches in a KIPP charter school. Russakoff worked for the Washington Post for 28 years, and is now completing a book about the Zuckerberg gift to Newark. If it is as good as the article, it should be a best-seller.
The first thing you will notice when you read the account of the alliance between Cory Booker, then Newark mayor now New Jersey Senator, and Governor Chris Christie is that they have no interest in democracy. Booker and Christie wanted Newark to become an all-charter district. Booker is a supporter of vouchers; maybe Christie is too but he can’t impose them on the state of New Jersey. They agree that top-down, fast reform is necessary, without consensus, without public discussion, or it won’t happen at all. They proceed, too slowly, it turns out, without public engagement (although a consultant is paid over $1 million to create public engagement). Eventually, they hired Cami Anderson to run the district, admiring her take-no-prisoners style of decision-making. How did that work out? She now can’t or won’t attend meetings of the advisory school board because of intense hostility to her. She moved out of Newark for the safety of her family. In fact, she was the focal issue in last year’s mayoral campaign; voter antagonism to her helped to elect Ras Baraka.
The most striking quote in the article comes from Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County, who says “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
The next point that is striking is that the woeful condition of Newark schools has a history, which Russakoff recounts. The state has controlled the district since 1995, so no one can or should blame the people of Newark for dysfunctional schools and decrepit buildings. The people have had no control of the schools for 20 years. Before 1995, the Newark schools seems to have been a honey pot for corrupt politicians, most of them with ties to the political structure.
There are cautionary lessons here. Booker apparently still thinks that Newark may be a national model of school reform in two or three years (he said that almost a year ago, so we should expect Newark to be a national model in one or two years). Zuckerberg has gotten interested in school reform, along with his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, who grew up poor and credits her public school teachers with helping her find the right college (Harvard) and inspiring her to go to medical school. Last year, the Zuckerbergs gave $120 million to San Francisco area public schools, after consulting with administrators and teachers. Perhaps the fiasco in Newark, where his $100 million disappeared, will make him more cautious about investing in the very expensive school reform industry, as its results don’t match its promises. Its promises are very expensive.