“The Prize” Author Discusses Changes within Newark Schools Before and After $100 Million Donation

A breath-taking announcement five years ago, so big it was made on “Oprah”. An unlikely alliance of New Jersey’s white republican Governor, Newark’s black democratic mayor and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would transform Newark’s public schools. Riddled with bloated bureaucracies and bad teachers into a national model of urban school reform, with a $100 million prize to back it up. What happened next is contained in “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools”. It’s author is reporter Dale Russakoff. She told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that when the donation by Zuckerberg was made, Zuckerberg along with Chris Christie and then Newark mayor Cory Booker had a lot of confidence that the education reform movement was the answer to failing schools.

“Well, I think they had a lot of confidence that the education reform movement had the answer to what was failing and what was ailing urban schools,” said Russakoff. “And they thought that with charter schools and a more business minded approach to managing the school district — more accountability, better data systems — that they can bring all these ideas to one city and transform the schools and they thought that they thought that Newark was the perfect place to do it because the state had absolute control over the schools and have for 15 years.”

On what their plan was, Russakoff said that Christie and Booker didn’t have a thorough plan. She said that they wanted to expand the charter sector in Newark and improve the accountability systems in the district schools. She also said that there were not that many details beyond improving the accountability systems. According to Russakoff, charter schools were expanded and accountability was added to the district but that what was missing was their plan on what was going to happen inside the classrooms, answering issues.

“But the part that was missing was what were they gonna do inside the classrooms where the kids were coming to school with an awful lot of issues — academic problems, the issues that poverty raises, the issue that violence raises in unstable families raise — and none of that was part of the plan,” she said.

Russakoff said that there were people who used poverty as an excuse but that poverty is a very real issue in Newark and that it is a learning issue.

While Zuckerberg made the $100 million donation to Newark schools, a lot of questions were made surrounding the donation. Russakoff said that some asked why Zuckerberg didn’t make the donation in California, where the state spends half as much per child than what is spent in the Newark school districts. Other questions surrounding the donation asked why the donation didn’t go to Camden or Irvington.

“I think that their view was the district money, the billion dollar prize was allocated to the schools and that this money would be outside money that could be catalytic and create changes in these systems that they wanted to change — the data system, the accountability system, the overall management of the school district,” she said.

When asked what was missing from the plan, Russakoff said that an understanding of what was causing the failure within the Newark schools was missing. She said that a lack of resources for the classroom was missing because children would sometimes enter class a few school years behind and that it wasn’t part of the plan.

She also said that a key difference between charter schools and district schools include that charters have access to more resources. She also said that another difference between both charter and district schools is that charter schools teachers are not unionized in New Jersey and in most states.

While Christie and Booker used all their political capitol to get the money, Russakoff said that Booker had conveyed to Zuckerberg that he had the power and influence to make sure that the money would transform the district. Although Booker had conveyed to Zuckerberg that he would get the support, Russakoff said that Booker didn’t have the crowd and didn’t persuade people that this was the approach to reform schools.

Russakoff said that Cami Anderson came to Newark as the Superintendent one year after the whole process had started. While a number of incidents had occurred, Russakoff said that people felt Anderson’s arrival was being imposed by people from outside of the city.

“So there had already been an awful lot of incidents that made it clear to the people of Newark that this was not their enterprise. That this was something being imposed on them by people from the outside. And so by the time that Cami came, she was seen as an agent of this outside movement to change Newark,” Russakoff said.

When asked about the role of the community in all of it, Russakoff said, “The community, I feel, was acted upon in this whole process. Instead of this being done with the community, it was done to the community.”

Russakoff said that while the donation was made and there were misunderstandings, that somethings were gained by the money. She also said that the donation also didn’t improve things, including student achievement.

Now that Anderson is out as superintendent and with Chris Cerf as her replacement, Russakoff said that most of the changes that were made within Newark school are going to stay in place.

“I think that most of the changes are going to stay in place because Chris Cerf believes in them and is going to be an advocate for them,” she said. “ I think what he’s focusing on trying to do is correct the many implementation problems that made the changes so excruciating for the community and he has done that in some ways already.”