Two hundred million dollars just wasn’t enough. Even with $100 million dollars from Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, and another $100 million in private funds raised by Corey Booker, then mayor of Newark, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie—$200 million just was not enough to fix the Newark public school system. In “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”, author Dale Russakoff examines what happens when hubris and hidden agendas collide and the intended recipients become the victims instead of the victors.
There was never any doubt that Newark Public School System (NPSS) needed help. The state seized control of NPSS schools in 1995 stating that pervasive corruption and patronage at the top meant that instead of helping students, the system damaged them; the longer students remained in the system, the less likely they were to succeed academically. Even after fifteen years of state control, fewer than forty percent of students in grades 3 through 8 were reading or doing math at grade level. High school graduation rate was a dismal 54%.
Without any understanding of what was happening in the district, Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie concluded that radical changes had to be made quickly. Their ignorance of NPSS was only exceeded by their arrogance in the way they developed a plan to ‘fix’ the schools. They spent over $20 million hiring mostly white consultants, who had no experience with NPSS. They also excluded the primary stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders— making little effort to inform them of two key provisions of the consultant’s plan: that they planned to replace the poorest performing schools with charter schools and, that they would relying on standardized test scores to evaluate students’ learning and teacher performance. Even though decades of research has shown that students’ experiences at home and in the neighborhoods have far more influence on academic achievement than classroom instruction, when stakeholders raised concerns, Christi repeatedly responded to criticism with the patriarchal, “We know what works.”.
The disastrous results could have been predicted by any objective observer. The three men leading this effort, however, weren’t objective. This was Zuckerberg’s first major philanthropic initiative and he wanted a “proof point” to validate his efforts. Booker wanted the Newark intervention to support his, ultimately successful, plans to run for a U.S. Senate seat and Christie was considering a 2012 run for president. This situation was made worse by interference from state political kingpins and the New Jersey Teachers Union which demanded over $30 million for teacher salaries to support the new contract Zuckerberg wanted in order to make performance the basis for teacher promotions. He didn’t know that the current seniority system was New Jersey state law and could only be eliminated by the legislature. Because of this and other similar debacles, Zuckerberg’s money never made it to the kids in the classroom where it was needed most.
By Spring 2014, Christie was forced to admit that they didn’t know what worked. They had spent $200 million dollars and had failed spectacularly. Tragically, the students, teachers, administrators and community who had these “transformative changes” forced upon them with no input, suffered the most.
As opportunists do, Booker, Zuckerberg and Christie just moved on. Booker ran successfully for the senate, Zuckerberg pivoted to other philanthropic initiatives, and Christie is still in hot pursuit of the presidency. “The Prize” is a cautionary tale of a remarkable opportunity lost to greed, hubris and mismanagement and now allegory for everyone committed to improving public schools in America.
Dr. Granville M. Sawyer Jr., is the former president of the South Orange – Maplewood, New Jersey School District, author of “College in Four Years: Making Every Semester Count.” and a professor of finance and director of the MBA program at Bowie State University. An authority on helping minority students achieve success in higher education, he writes about education and life at GranvilleSawyer.com and tweets @ProfGMS.