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How a $100M Facebook Donation for Neoliberal School Reform Sparked a Grassroots Uprising in Newark

StoryOctober 21, 2015
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Five years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix the trouble-plagued schools of Newark, New Jersey. Joining forces with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and then-Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, the effort was billed as a model for education reform across the nation. But the story of what followed emerges as a cautionary tale. Tens of millions were spent on hiring outside consultants and expanding charter schools, leading to public school closures, teacher layoffs and an overall decline in student performance. Parents, students, teachers and community members pushed back in a grassroots uprising to save their schools. We are joined by Dale Russakoff, who tells the story in her book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The education system of Newark, New Jersey, has faced years of crisis, with high dropout rates, low-performing schools and a state takeover dating back two decades. In 2010, an unlikely trio emerged with a bold pledge to fix it. The three were Republican Governor Chris Christie, Democratic Mayor of Newark Cory Booker and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And they made their announcement on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

OPRAH WINFREY: Mayor Booker, for those who don’t know, what’s the big news?

MAYOR CORY BOOKER: Well, we’ve been talking for quite some time about creating a bold new paradigm for educational excellence in the country, to show the way, to put the people of the city of Newark really in the driver’s seat and in the focal point, and to work to get all of the assets and resources we need to give to them to succeed.

OPRAH WINFREY: So, Governor Christie, what are you committing to? What are you committing to?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: What I’m committing to is changing the schools in the city where I was born and spent the first years of my life. And Mayor Booker is going to be the point person, our lead guy in Newark, in helping to develop this entirely new plan of how to reform the education system in Newark and create a national model. I’m empowering him to do that. I’m in charge of the public schools in the city of Newark as governor. I’m going to empower Mayor Booker to develop that plan and to implement it, with a superintendent of schools that we’re going to pick together.

OPRAH WINFREY: I think that is so fantastic. … So, Mr. Zuckerberg, what role are you playing in all of this? Are the rumors true? Will there be a check offered at some point? Yes.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Well, yeah, I’ve committed to starting the Startup:Education foundation, whose first project will be a $100 million challenge grant for—

OPRAH WINFREY: One hundred million dollars.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: A hundred million dollars.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from Oprah in 2010. But despite trumpeting their plan as a model for national school reform, the story of what followed emerges as a cautionary tale. With matching funds from other donors, millions of dollars initially flowed not to the schools but to outside consultants, most of them white and with no ties to Newark’s majority African-American community. Some consultants made up to $1,000 a day.

AMY GOODMAN: Shunning input from teachers, parents, community members, officials pushed a neoliberal education agenda favored by Wall Street and lobby groups. Charter schools were radically expanded, and teachers were evaluated by their students’ test scores. As charter school attendance doubled, public schools were shuttered, and educators and support staff lost their jobs. Neighborhood schooling was replaced with a lottery system that divided families and forced children into dangerous commutes. While some students benefited from placement in the higher-funded charter schools, the Newark school system’s overall performance level fell even lower.

The author Dale Russakoff covered the Newark education reform effort from the beginning and recounts it in her new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? She was previously a reporter at The Washington Post for 28 years, where she covered politics, education and social policy.

Dale Russakoff, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this even fits into presidential politics, and always, overall education policy, Chris Christie being one of the Republican presidential candidates. But talk about just what happened, from the beginning. OK, we just played the announcement on Oprah. Mark Zuckerberg, $100 million he’s giving to the Newark school system. What happened?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes, well, Mark Zuckerberg did give $100 million, and Cory Booker and Chris Christie did raise a second $100 million. And $60 million of it went to expand the charter schools in Newark, which, unlike charter schools nationally, do outperform the district schools significantly. So those children got, in many cases, a much better opportunity. But the children who were in the district schools did not benefit. And what they promised was that they weren’t just going to expand charter schools, they were going to turn all of the schools in Newark into high-performing schools. Cory Booker said he was going to create a “hemisphere of hope” in Newark. And what’s happened to the district schools, where 60 percent of the children go, is not a positive story. They’ve had, in every—every year since they brought in the new superintendent, there’s been declines in reading and math throughout the school district.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But as Governor Christie said in that Oprah clip, he’s in charge of the Newark school system, because it’s been basically under state receivership now for several decades, yet none of this seems to have rubbed off on Governor Christie.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: No, Governor Christie seems to have basically, you know, washed his hands of it. Just when he started his campaign on an intensive daily basis, he moved out the superintendent, who he had brought in, who had become the focus of all of the controversy, brought in another—his former education commissioner to run the show, and announced that he is going to return, over the course of the next few years, maybe within a year—return control of the district, after all these years, to the Newark voters.

AMY GOODMAN: This also is a story about the education of Mark Zuckerberg.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he understood at the beginning how the money would be used, and how involved he has been.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that one of the biggest surprises is that Mark Zuckerberg came into this without doing a lot of due diligence about what was going to happen with his money. The best you could say is that Cory Booker swept him off his feet and told him that he—

AMY GOODMAN: How did they meet?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Oh, well, they met at a retreat for billionaires and politicians and celebrities, which is held every year in Sun Valley, Idaho. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The retreat is called?


AMY GOODMAN: It doesn’t have a name?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: I don’t think it has a name. But it’s Herbert Allen, the investment banker, sponsors it every year. And it just so happened that they were both going, Booker as a presenter and Zuckerberg as a billionaire investor. And it was the first time for both of them. And they met, and Cory Booker knew that Zuckerberg was going to be there, and he knew also that Zuckerberg was contemplating, at age 26, his first act as a philanthropist and that he wanted to do something, quote, “big,” unquote, in education. And Booker persuaded him that this was something that he should invest his money in, that Newark was on the verge of a revolutionary change in education and that his $100 million could make a big difference. So, there really wasn’t a tremendous amount of due diligence. The way that Booker presented it to him was almost like, you know, a startup of a tech company, that we’ll have a proof point in Newark, we’ll find just five or six things that we can do here that will transform education, and then we can take it to every city in the country, every inner city that has struggling schools, and that Zuckerberg, as a philanthropist, could spend the rest of his philanthropic life changing urban schools for the better.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you talk a lot about—in the book, about how this was an attempt, as much of what’s happening in education is today, of reform from the top down—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of a few people coming up with a plan, finding the finances and then imposing their will on every—all the other stakeholders in the system. Could you talk about how that played out in Newark?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes. Well, you know, it sounded like it would play out pretty easily, because Chris Christie, as the governor, controlled the schools. The governor had controlled the schools for, at that point, 15 years, because there had been a state takeover in 1995 after findings of rampant corruption and terrible neglect of students. So—but the state had not really improved the situation in Newark. Nonetheless, they thought that they had all the power they needed to bring this about. But what happened was, this was—I mean, in Booker and Christie and Zuckerberg’s view, it was important to bypass the people and bypass the local power structure, because they felt the powers that be would undermine education reform, because unions and political bosses would try to defend the status quo. So their point was, in the name of the children, we’re going to bypass the democratic process. But what happened in Newark was that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And—but also bypass the parents of those children.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, exactly. That’s what I was going to say, that it wasn’t just that they were bypassing the unions and the bosses. The parents of the children of Newark found out about this revolutionary change from Oprah, just the way the national television audience did. There was no preparation and no discussion, no input. And so, over—as the details began to come out, and they began to find out what was going to happen in the way of school closings and layoffs and children having to switch—you know, thousands of children having to switch schools because their schools were either closing or consolidating, it became just a grassroots revolution almost. And I think that that’s the reason that Governor Christie wanted to wash his hands of this whole thing, after having gone on Oprah and tried to sort of tout it as a national model.

And so, the political uprising ended up almost, you know—well, not single-handedly, but significantly helping to elect Ras Baraka, who was a high school principal, who ran for mayor almost exclusively on a platform of stopping these reforms. And even though the education reform movement put over $5 million into the campaign of his opponent, he won significantly, just because of this grassroots uprising. So, it wasn’t just unions and bosses, it was parents and people in Newark who felt that they—you know, that somebody who didn’t understand the children and whose interests they weren’t really sure of was in charge of their schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the money been spent?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Most of it has—almost all of it has been spent. There’s actually $30 million that hasn’t been spent, because what it was—it was raised and allocated for a principals’ contract and for teacher—for buyouts of bad teachers, and neither of those things came to pass. The principals and the district never reached an agreement, and the buyouts never materialized. So there’s $30 million left. And it looks as if there may be some kind of agreement between the Christie administration and Ras Baraka to spend that—some of that money on creating community schools, which are schools that would have social services not just for students, but also for adults and for neighborhoods, and that schools could be something of a community center, you know, after the school day for children in the neighborhood.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about some of the key figures that were involved in this. A couple of them actually worked for a time in the New York public school system—Chris Cerf and Cami Anderson.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Their roles and the internal battles and what happened to them as a result of these parent uprisings?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes, well, Chris Cerf was the commissioner, the state commissioner of education, who was in charge of the Newark schools by virtue of being Christie’s agent in charge of education in the state. And he was the supervisor and boss of the superintendent, Cami Anderson. And Cerf had been the number one deputy to Joel Klein, who was chancellor of New York City schools for eight years and was—had become a national champion and national hero of the education reform movement. And so, Cerf basically brought the same ideas that Joel Klein had used in New York, and wanted to—and he was in very many ways the architect of what happened in Newark and followed the—you know, followed Joel Klein’s model.

They hired Cami Anderson to be the superintendent, and she had been one of Klein’s deputies. She was in charge of alternative schools in New York City, so that included the students on—you know, who are in prison on Rikers Island, that included pregnant teenagers, you know, people who had aged out of the system and came back as adults to learn. So she had the most challenging students in New York City. And interestingly, you know, Cerf’s idea was to—and Booker’s idea and Christie’s idea and Zuckerberg’s idea was to use charter schools as a big part of this expansion and reform, and also then to take the district schools and try to make them much more sort of running on a business model and have a lot more accountability for teachers, have high penalties for teachers who were the weakest and great rewards for those who were the best, some of which materialized. So, anyway, but Cami Anderson became, you know, the superintendent and was in many ways the lightning rod for all of these—all of these reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments recently by Chris Cerf, the new state-appointed superintendent of Newark public schools.

CHRISTOPHER CERF: The graduation rate is improved considerably. That’s probably the most important statistic of all.

STEVE ADUBATO: High school?

CHRISTOPHER CERF: High school graduation rate. It’s gone from the mid-50s up into the mid-60s. The percentage of students who are graduating from high school, having passed our exit exam here in the state, called HSPA, has gone up significantly. There’s been some very important work in professional development.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Newark School Superintendent Chris Cerf appearing on the program One-on-One. Your response to that, Dale Russakoff?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, the graduation rate has gone up, but it actually went up in the first year that Cami Anderson was there and has been flat ever since, so those were students who had already been in the schools for three years. It’s not clear that what they’ve been doing in Newark has increased the graduation rate. And unfortunately, if you look at college readiness, the ACT shows that only 2 to 5 percent of students in the comprehensive high schools are college-ready. Those comprehensive high schools are schools that are not magnets and not charters. So, I think that, you know, it’s very unclear what’s going on at the high school level.

And if you look at the kindergarten through eighth grade, all of the test scores have gone down since Cami Anderson became the superintendent. I don’t think that’s because she has—you know, because she damaged the schools in what she did. I just don’t think that the changes that she made were—well, the changes that she made were probably, you know, in many cases, positive, but there was no focus on getting more money to the classroom to support the kids who have such incredible needs in Newark and in cities like it. You have a lot of poverty. Children witness violence on a regular basis. And for teachers to try to reach those kids, there has to be more support.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, now you’re in a situation where you have a mayor who came to power basically opposing these neoliberal reforms in the school system, but yet he has no impact or control over the school system.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So he’s now in a position where he’s uniting with the parents to continue a grassroots opposition—the mayor and the parents—to his own school system.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes, yes. And he’s also in a funny position because he is now sort of in alliance with Christie and with Chris Cerf, who’s—Chris Cerf is now the superintendent of schools. And, you know, he’s trying to work out some kind of a peaceful resolution so that Newark can—you know, so that the people can take control of the schools, and at the same time, you know, not—he’s concerned that if he—I think if he collaborates too much with them, that he’ll lose the advantage that he should have when he becomes—you know, when the schools come back to local control. But the mayor will not control the schools even then. It will be an elected school board. He’ll have a lot of influence over those people—you know, over the elections, but he won’t control them or the schools.

AMY GOODMAN: The grassroots uprising you describe, how did parents organize? Some of your most beautiful passages are how the teachers and the principals battled for the students, who have grown up in poverty in one of the poorest cities in the United States, and what they tried to do, as well.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes, well, the parents just—you know, there were a lot of organizational efforts that went around the schools that were being closed and consolidated. Parents started assembling and picketing in front of the schools. And at first it was just kind of very dispersed, and then, actually, as Ras Baraka’s mayoral campaign progressed, they started rallying around him, and instead of just turning up at individual schools, there were mass meetings at churches that he often appeared at, and parents from all of the schools came. And, you know, there was just this feeling that we don’t—we don’t know what’s happening to our schools or to our kids, and we don’t trust the process. And he became the rallying point for them and their opposition. And I think that there was also a sense that their teachers—they trusted their teachers, and they trusted their principals, and they didn’t trust the people who were in charge of whatever these reforms were bringing about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the lessons of Newark for the rest of the country? Because, obviously, education battles are sprouting throughout America, whether it’s over Common Core or whether it’s over opting out of standardized tests, and the degree—the number and percentage of charter schools that are developing in all the major cities in the country and pushing out public schools. Your sense of what—the main lessons that you draw that people across America should learn from your book?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that what happened in Newark, you know, in terms of just the political uprising against the changes, came from parents feeling that somebody’s in charge of education who doesn’t understand our kids. And while, you know, Newark is very different from suburban communities, I think that’s the feeling a lot of suburban parents have, who are upset about testing. They feel that this is not in the best interest of our kids, or at least this level of testing isn’t in the best interest of our kids. And so, it’s the same—you know, in many ways, it’s the same impulse.

AMY GOODMAN: You had extensive access given to you by Cory Booker. Can you talk about how he felt about the students? Would you say he put it above his political career?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that he cares very much about students. He relates to them when he’s in schools. You can see that, you know, he really does care a lot about the kids. But he did not stick with this plan. I mean, I think once he got the $100 million gift, and once he had gone on Oprah to announce it, there was a lot less focus on the ground of really carrying out changes in Newark.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Dale Russakoff, for joining us, author of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, reporter for The Washington Post for more than a quarter of a century.

And as we wrap up, Juan, you’re giving a major address tonight at New York University, the King Juan Carlos Center, on Puerto Rican debt crisis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. I decided, after writing numerous columns in the Daily News and talking here about it, that that never—I’ve never been able to do a full explanation of what is happening with the debt crisis and what are the potential solutions for—what can the United States can do to help Puerto Rico in the current crisis. So I’m hoping to do that tonight at NYU.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s at the Juan Carlos Center at New York University tonight at 7:00 p.m. There will be a live stream, as well, and we will link to it at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is hiring a director of development to lead our fundraising efforts. You can send in your résumé. You can get more information at democracynow.org.

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