Winter 2016 – Books in Brief

Learning from Newark

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan recently announced their ambitious plans to give 99 percent of their Facebook stock to an LLC that will make charitable contributions, engage in lobbying, and invest in for-profit businesses, all with charitable aims. The announcement inspired skepticism from some pundits, who used the couple’s $100 million grant to the Newark public-school system of several years previous to warn that even the best intentions can end in disappointment.

In her well-timed work The Prize, which takes an in-depth look at the battles in Newark over Zuckerberg’s gift, veteran journalist Dale Russakoff offers her analysis. Her title itself is a cynical reference to the patronage tradition and the purse-string wars, political muscle, and municipal dysfunction that afflicts the struggling Newark school district. She describes how Zuckerberg, with the support of Governor Chris Christie, then-Newark-mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker, and tough superintendent Cami Anderson, hoped to remake the Newark schools into a national model for urban education. But even those savvy advocates ultimately failed to corral the grassroots support necessary to make lasting progress in a damaged and suspicious city.

When Zuckerberg decided to take the plunge into education philanthropy back in 2010, he went searching for a city in great need of an overhaul. Enter Cory Booker, whose charisma and reformist mindset greatly appealed to Zuckerberg. It wasn’t long after Zuckerberg and Booker met one another at a dinner in Sun Valley that they, along with Christie, appeared with much fanfare on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million challenge grant that required matching funds.

Central to their vision was a new teacher’s union contract, and a framework that would attract talented educators by recognizing merit over seniority. As part of this they knew they had to give school principals operational autonomy and real ability to control their staff. Zuckerberg wanted the contract to upend the system that rewarded longevity rather than results, and hoped the replacement could draw talented young instructors from far and wide. Each state official—Christie, Booker, and Anderson—had a demanding part to play if teacher accountability provisions within state law were going to be significantly bolstered, at the same time that union demands would need to be placated, while enough philanthropic dollars were drawn to the city to match Zuckerberg’s commitment.

Throughout the story, Russakoff highlights the disconnect between the optimistic picture Booker and Christie sketched for potential donors versus the reality in Newark’s neighborhoods, where chronically low-performing schools continued to be the norm. Even with the emergence of high-performing charter schools, and some briefly constructive union negotiations, a growing backlash was building within the community. Eventually this would burst to the surface in intractable union demands, parents angry that their local school might close, and eruptions from community militants who felt excluded from the deals.

Newark eventually achieved a new teacher contract with somewhat more accountability, but still lacking many of the reform items on Zuckerberg’s wish list, and with a huge price tag that came from paying off the union. Then the political muscle that is everywhere necessary to advance bold school reform evaporated. Booker moved on to his U.S. Senate seat, Christie pivoted to building his national profile and coping with political opponents, and Anderson was chased out by a new mayor who ran in open hostility to school change.

The Newark experience demonstrates the importance of having sturdy political support when ambitious social reforms are attempted, the dangers of community resistance, and the foolishness of undertaking titanic change before these tasks have been managed. Russakoff quotes Kaya Henderson, current schools chancellor in the District of Columbia and Michelle Rhee’s successor, saying that “movements that don’t include beneficiaries are doomed to fail.” Even the best-aimed reforms and richest philanthropy will flounder if the families who should benefit are reluctant or feel left out.  

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