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

Digging Deeper into 'The Prize': Who's in Charge of America's Schools?
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In this photo released by Facebook, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, center, is joined by Cory A. Booker, left, the Mayor of Newark, N.J., and N.J. Governor Chris Christie, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010 in Newark, N.J. at a news conference detailing a $100 million deal with New Jersey schools that Zuckerberg and Booker announced earlier in the week.

RCEd Commentary

Richard Whitmire chats with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize: Who’s in charge of America’s Schools?, about the ill-fated infusion of $200 million into Newark schools. 

Richard Whitmire: In Washington, D.C., former chancellor Michelle Rhee was hampered by the fact she’s a Korean American female. If (former Superintendent) Cami Anderson had been African American, would her turbulent time in Newark have turned out differently?

Dale Russakoff: I thought about that the whole time I was reporting the book. The optics of this white woman sitting up there at school board meetings was threatening to many people in Newark. But the late Beverly Hall (who was black) was the first state-appointed superintendent and she was run out of town on a rail. She was seen as a hostile agent of the state who had been imported from New York City. Plus, at the beginning Cami was mostly welcomed. There was a committee of residents who interviewed her, and they were mostly African American, and the great majority of them liked her and wanted her to be superintendent.

RW: No race impact at all?

DR: There is no question that once the opposition got traction there were demagogues who used her whiteness brilliantly. The opposition, including the American Federation of Teachers, ran huge ads featuring big pictures of her – a white woman with blond hair and her chin up in the air, in a pose of defiance. The text was something like, “We need local control,” but the subtext all but screamed, “White woman destroying your school system.”

RW: You follow a school program in the traditional Newark district, BRICK Avon, which seemed to have everything going for it. You also profile a charter school, KIPP SPARK Academy. In the end, SPARK works for kids; BRICK Avon far less so. Is it possible for Newark to turn around its schools, absent a massive infusion of charter schools?

DR: I think SPARK shows you what districts need to do to change. I feel like Newark needs a huge community engagement effort based on making tough choices in education. You could show people a charter school that’s really effective at getting money to the classroom and illustrate for people what money in our district schools could be doing for the kids. The Avon Avenue school you mentioned got less than $8,000 per student of the $22,000 the district spends per student every year. The rest was controlled by the central bureaucracy. You would say to the people: This money could be serving your children the way that charter school money serves those children. We have to make tradeoffs to do that. Which ones are we willing to make?

RW: That won’t be easy. There are lots of reasons why Newark spends more per child than the charters and yet less money reaches the classroom. You point out that janitorial services at Avon cost $1,200 per student. Why would those janitors agree to give up those contracts? Civil service laws and seniority rules left the central office awash in clerks that weren’t needed. All this in Newark, where private sector jobs are scarce. Why would they give up those jobs?

DR: I think parents want to have schools that are equipped to do for their kids what SPARK is doing. Everyone will say, oh my God that would involve going after the unions. That would involve going at civil service. Of course it would. But until that happens nothing is going to really change.

RW: I apologize for my skepticism, but I don’t see teachers or janitors or the central office easily giving up any benefits and jobs.

DR: Well, I don’t see them giving up willingly, but one thing Cami wanted to do with the Zuckerberg gift was to have a kind of retraining, relocation fund for people losing their jobs. I mean, the fact is that janitors and other lower level workers are losing jobs anyway because the district is cutting jobs and money, largely due to charter expansion. So, it’s happening anyway. Why not do it in a way that gets money to the classroom in ways that help kids?

RW: You point out the distrust and dislike of charters you found among many Newark residents. Charter opponents see charters in the same light as urban renewal – something done to them that did little for the black community. But based on your reporting, I don’t see how Newark can revitalize schools on its own. It seems like the city would be better off with an all-charter district such as New Orleans? Am I wrong?

DR: I guess I’m not ready to say that. I have enormous respect for some of the charters in Newark, but some are worse than the average district school. It seems like charters are good if you have excellent leadership, and they’re not if you don’t. Having an all-charter district, on its own, doesn’t solve the school quality problem. If there were a big push to build a movement to do with the district school funds what charters are doing, then why couldn’t the district schools improve dramatically? If the district schools had the same flexibility with staff and the same resources at the school level they could do what charters are doing.

RW: Newark appears especially hopeless when you look at nearby Camden, where the effort to improve schools – an effort that includes a large infusion of charters – appears to be going much smoother. Why the difference?

DR: I haven’t been on the ground in Camden, but my understanding is that the superintendent (Paymon Rouhanifard ) is trying to fix a broken system but he’s not waging a top-down campaign or treating the local community as the problem, which is the way this reform effort started in Newark. In Camden, they are going about it more modestly. He goes around listening to parents and teachers, and has huge events for kids who are excelling in district schools. He has teacher events to honor teachers. There’s more of an emphasis on getting the input of parents and community, from the ground level.

RW: Speaking of leadership, it’s hard to determine from your book who comes off the worst. My sense is that former mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker wins that prize.

DR: There was this tremendous suspicion that Cory Booker, for all this incredible political talent, was using Newark as a stepping stone and that this was something he was doing with his funders, and for his own benefit – but not for the kids of Newark.

Cory Booker is brilliant at framing issues and drawing national attention to them, including issues that others might overlook—like education for the lowest-income kids. But as many people who have worked with him in Newark know, he’s not as strong when it comes to doing the unglamorous, tedious, patient work in the vineyards to insure that things he talks about with such passion actually are translated into reality.  That was the case in the aftermath of the announcement of the Zuckerberg gift.

RW: By hindsight, the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million (matched by another $100 million raised independently) was announced on Oprah before being announced in Newark was a complete disaster. And then so much of the money was spent on clueless consultants and back pay for teachers, whether they were effective or ineffective. Would Newark have been better off if Zuckerberg had never made that donation?

DR: Heavens no. Newark would’ve been better off if this effort hadn’t been so hostile to the local community. It was the hubris of the reformers, more than what they were trying to do, that created such explosive opposition. That’s what polarized the city and crowded out what had been a growing consensus that the Newark schools needed dramatic change.

But apart from that, I do believe Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg’s efforts had positive effects, even if you can’t see them in student achievement data. Cerf and Cami Anderson got the union to agree to significantly more accountability in the teachers’ contract; the reformers got the legislature to pass a tenure law that also demands more accountability; Cami Anderson upped the quality of principals on average and insured that they spent more time in classrooms and less on bureaucratic tasks.

The problem was that these “systems changes,” as they called them, weren’t coupled with a similar emphasis on getting money to the classrooms so that teachers had the support they needed to reach students scarred by poverty, violence and years of academic neglect. Teachers in the best charters get that kind of support, and they consider it critical to student achievement. The Zuckerberg money also helped the best charters in Newark expand. The truth is that they likely would’ve raised philanthropic money to fund their growth with or without Zuckerberg’s help, but there’s no question that he and the matching donors made it easier for them.

RW: Your title, "The Prize," refers to the school district as an employment prize, one of the few dependable employers in Newark. Does the current (and apparently successful) push for local control mean the district will return to valuing jobs over kids’ educations?

DR: That’s a very big fear. I think there are a lot of people who think you can keep all those jobs and special deals that were built into the district budget without exacting a cost on education. There’s a very real argument that if you cut back on custodians, security guards, clerks and cafeteria workers – about 95 percent of whom live in Newark – you are doing economic damage to families of Newark school children, which isn’t good for learning either. But with the district budget shrinking dramatically, as more kids are moving to charters, there’s no escaping that the old way of doing business is taking too much money away from kids and classrooms. I think it’s going to be a real struggle.

RW: The new mayor, Ras Baraka, championed local control. Is there any reason to believe he will do otherwise?

DR: If you talk to Baraka privately, he knows this is a problem. The question is, as a public official, what is he willing to do about it?

RW: What kind of political leadership is needed in Newark?

DR: I think you need a leader who has a relationship of trust with the community. And Baraka has that. I feel Baraka could be a sort of Nixon-to-China figure if he wanted to be. He is a mayor of the people. He came from the people. They know him, they trust him. When they bleed, he bleeds. He doesn’t have the aura of somebody who wants to go anywhere but Newark. He was a principal for 20 years. He knows exactly what is wrong with education in Newark. He dealt with tenured teachers he didn’t want; he wanted a more flexible teacher schedule. He thinks teachers should get a base salary and then only get raises based on their performance. And yet he ran with the big embrace of the Newark unions who don’t agree with that at all.

RW: If he were "Nixon to China" he would stand up and tell everyone exactly what needs to be done. Will he?

DR: It’s a good question. I think he will go part of the distance, but I don’t think he will go the whole distance. One thing he said to me, and I don’t think I quoted this in the book, was after I asked him if you believe all this why aren’t you saying this publicly? His answer: You can’t get too far in front of the people.

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