Russakoff’s “The Prize” Exposes Arrogance and Pride of Chris Christie and Cory Booker

The Prize is Dale Russakoff’s new book about the plan cooked up by then-Newark-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey governor Cris Christie to transform the schools in Newark, New Jersey as a national model.  Booker’s view was that it was the perfect district for such an experiment because it is small enough that most of the variables could be controlled. Booker traveled to an elite conference in Sun Valley, Idaho to present the idea to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who would be asked to donate $100 million.  Booker and Christie’s plan was designed to be top-down, to be announced on the Oprah Winfrey show before the people of Newark knew about it:

“It called for imposing reform from the top down, warning that a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. ‘Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,’ the proposal said.  Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’  The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data and accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections.  Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.  Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors.  In those pitches, Booker portrayed the Newark schools as a prize of a very different sort: a laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation’s most troubled school districts.  He predicted that Newark would be transformed into a ‘hemisphere of hope’ catalyzing the spread of reform throughout urban America.” (pp. 20-21)

Russakoff’s book is less about school reform really than about the hubris of Cory Booker and cruel arrogance of Chris Christie, despite that its focus is the imposition of corporatized school reform upon Newark.  Russakoff is at pains to take us into classrooms and to make us see the work of school teachers.  Her approach to portraying the schools through stories of excellent teachers leads to what I see as the book’s flaw—an adoption of “the school teacher as savior” myth.  Russakoff is won over by energetic young principals and teachers in KIPP charters who go to all lengths to save children—including even the creation of a carpool of teachers who pick children in one family up and deliver them home each day to a shelter—to help the children avoid the label “homeless.”  Such efforts, while laudable, cannot possibly be the building blocks of sustainable systems to educate the children of our nation’s poorest families.

Once Zuckerberg had bought in, Booker and Christie set about selling the preconceived plan to the community, and immediately things backfired. An early hire was Bradley Tusk, a New York consultant brought in to create a process to get the community to agree to the need for the plan that had already been adopted by city leaders.  “A senior aide to Booker privately deemed Tusk’s work ‘a boondoggle.’ According to a board member of the Foundation for Newark’s Future , which paid the bill (This agency was created to administer Zuckerberg’s gift and other grants that Zuckerberg specified must be raised to match his original $100 million), ‘It wasn’t real community engagement. It was public relations.'”  (p. 63)

Though she eventually promoted the expansion of charter schools as central to the plan that was later dubbed One Newark, Cami Anderson, the superintendent  hired to oversee the plan, is portrayed in The Prize as having understood the biggest danger of school reform based on rapid expansion of charters. “She pointed out that charters in Newark served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English… In cities like Newark, where the overall student population was static, growth for charters meant shrinkage for the district. Newark charters now were growing at a pace to enroll forty percent of children in five years, leaving the district with sixty percent—the neediest sixty percent… Anderson called this ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship.” (p. 118)  By contrast, when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a neighborhood school ask Mayor Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building, he replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

Despite what may have been her reservations, Anderson played the corporate game imposed by Christie and Booker.  She was supported by a succession of expensive consultants from New York.  “The going rate for consultants in Newark and elsewhere on the East Coast was $1,000 a day, and their pay comprised more than $20 million of the $200 million in philanthropy spent or committed in Newark.” (p. 71)  “Two of the highest-paid consultants were friends and former colleagues of Anderson, Alison Avera and Tracy Breslin, both senior officials in New York under Klein and Cerf and both fellows at the Broad Academy.  Both had worked for the Global Education Advisers consulting firm originally founded by Cerf, and Anderson asked them to stay on for about a year in two of her most strategic positions—Avera as interim chief of staff and Breslin, who had extensive experience in human resources, as interim director of a new Office of Talent… Avera and Breslin were married to each other; had they been public employees, nepotism rules would have prohibited one from supervising the other… Avera and Breslin had joined Global Education Advisers at $1,200 and $1,000 a day respectively, and they continued at those rates for Anderson; Breslin charged over-time on days when she worked more than eight hours, even though her contract specified that she be paid by the day, not the hour… In less than eighteen months working for Anderson… their combined pay exceeded $740,000.” (pp 126-127)

We keep on reading even when we know in advance how the story works out. One Newark crashed when Anderson couldn’t raise test scores despite replacing a large number of school principals and despite moving many experienced (and thought by Anderson to be ineffective) teachers into a pool who continued to be paid because they could not, by New Jersey law, be summarily laid off.  Booker, Christie and Anderson had sought and failed to break due-process protections, and the money ran short before Zuckerberg could establish the merit bonuses for teachers he believed were the key to transforming the district.  Anderson quickly alienated the community as well as the school staff, and she quit attending meetings of Newark’s largely toothless elected school board (Remember, Newark had been under state control for 20 years.) in January of 2014, over a year before Christie finally decided to terminate her.

Russakoff concludes: “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national ‘proof point’ in Newark.  There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.  Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform.  Newark illustrates that improving education for the nation’s poorest children is as much a political as a pedagogical challenge.” (pp. 209-210)

If not a national model, One Newark and the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson style of school “reform” is a symbol of what’s been happening in cities like Bloomberg’s New York and Rahm’s Chicago and experiments like Bill and Melinda Gates’ failed national small schools initiative and their effort to get teachers rated by students’ test scores.  Philanthropists and tech-savvy entrepreneurs leap to the conclusion that their business acumen gives them an edge to solve social problems way beyond the ability of mere school teachers. For the philanthropists who are underwriting these projects, money and celebrity also provide the political connections that make it possible for them to experiment on communities and schools and children far from home.  There are few consequences for the philanthropists if they fail, apart from losing money; and they have so much money that the loss of a hundred million dollars doesn’t really matter very much.

The failure of the Newark experiment doesn’t seem to have taught today’s big money experimenters a lesson.  Just last week Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, bought a full page ad in the NY Times to announce XQ: The Super School Project,  her new $50 million endeavor described by reporter Jennifer Medina as “the highest-profile project yet of the Emerson Collective, the group that Ms. Powell Jobs uses to finance her philanthropic projects.” “(T)he campaign is meant to inspire teams of educators and students, as well as leaders from other sectors to come up with new plans for high schools… By fall next year, Ms. Powell Jobs said, a team of judges will pick five to 10 of the best ideas to finance.”

And in the Washington Post last Thursday, Valerie Strauss described an exclusive “Philanthropy Innovation Summit” being held later this month, “to give philanthropists space ‘to convene and discuss their giving in an intimate, non-solicitation environment.'”  Participants are invited to, “Come be inspired by information and insights that can only be learned at this event.  You will leave with new and actionable ideas and skills to help you as you think about your philanthropy moving forward in topic areas including: Seeding Innovation in Philanthropy, Nexus of Design Thinking and Strategic Philanthropy, Philanthropreneurship, (and) Philanthropic Investment for Scientific Advancement.”  Strauss comments: “If you are wondering what ‘philanthropreneurship’ is, it is a term that came into use about a year ago and refers to… ‘the idea that the skills which enabled people to make their fortunes are often the ones required to solve apparently intractable problems.’  In other words, billionaires who created computers, software, Internet browsers, retail stores, etc., are the people the country needs to solve societal inequity and other ‘intractable problems.'”

In Newark, the most encouraging development was the emergence of a skeptical community and strong leadership by Ras Baraka, the respected high school principal and city councilman who made opposition to the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson plan the centerpiece of his campaign for mayor. As Russakoff demonstrates again and again, the citizens of Newark understood from the beginning that Mayor Booker had brought in outsiders to impose a dangerous experiment on their children and their neighborhood schools. In a place where the schools have been under state takeover for twenty years and where the citizens have little power over the district, the citizens of Newark rallied together to throw out One Newark and Cami Anderson, and to elect Ras Baraka.  It will take considerable time, however, for the damage to be repaired.

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6 thoughts on “Russakoff’s “The Prize” Exposes Arrogance and Pride of Chris Christie and Cory Booker

  1. The arrogance of philanthropists and entrepreneurs whose financial success proves they can solve (according to their perception of) what’s wrong with schools. Arrogance masks stupidity in that their “experiment doesn’t seem to have taught (these) experimenters a lesson. As you point out, “it will take considerable time, however, for the damage to be repaired.” But, like Humpty Dumpty, I question whether or not we’ll ever be able to put our public schools back together again.

  2. Jan,
    Thanks for your relentless research and review of these massive failures. As painful as they are to read, they need to be brought to the light of day. We know ‘sustainable’ education, addressing intractable problems requires REAL RELATIONSHIPS that are not built on ‘throwing huge sums of money to ‘consultants”, but the daily hard work of caring and instruction by teachers with adequate wages and strong unions, who form deep bonds with parents and children.
    What has happened instead is massive failure to help poor students and the privatization of education. Charters in Ohio (the president of their Association in a recent letter to the editor in the PD) complained that charters have students with significant difficulties and poverty and charters should not be judged by standards applied to the ‘typical’ student. I was stunned that the magic fix of charters hadn’t turned the problem around, but they were now using the excuse that was laid at the feet of public schools as the basis to privatize.
    It indicates that the issue was never really helping students with great educational needs, but privatizing education, destroying unions.

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