Dale Russakoff’s new book,
The Prize, on reforms in the Newark Public Schools over the last five years is a dramatic and cautionary tale about race, poverty, politics, money and, of course, education. Opponents of education reform will certainly revel in the setbacks but advocates of reform can take equal or greater comfort in the undeniable progress.
The key players in Russakoff’s telling are:
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose state assumed control of the Newark schools back in 1995, but had done little to improve things until 2010 during Christie’s first term as governor.
Former Mayor of Newark, now U.S. Senator, Cory Booker, whose drive, personality and Ivy League network brought national attention and philanthropic funding to Newark, including $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and another $100 million from wealthy associates.
New Jersey State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who set the whole train in motion before leaving for a stint in education technology. He recently returned to Newark to oversee the transition from state to local control.
Superintendent Cami Anderson, who Cerf recruited to drive reform. She recently resigned after a contentious four years that nevertheless brought needed change in district finances, teacher and principal quality and student enrollment.
Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a well-known local poet activist who capitalizes on the anti-reform backlash to succeed Booker as mayor of Newark. Baraka is now poised to regain control of the system.
Here’s what I learned: Reform was desperately needed in Newark. Russakoff chronicles the dismal academic results and shocking waste in the system, which receives nearly $20,000 per student in funding, well above the national average of $12,401, but spends less than half in the classroom. The rest is lost to bureaucracy. The urgency to drive systemic change on an impossible and unrealistic schedule (five years) trumped the equally important need to build support among parents, teachers and the community, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Facing the loss of thousands of teaching and non-teaching jobs, the community reacted as anyone would when their livelihoods are threatened. We should all appreciate the challenge of getting local people to embrace reforms that may improve their schools but also cost them their jobs. The expansion of public charter schools necessarily triggers under-enrollment and a budget crunch in district schools. There is no getting around the fact that it’s a zero-sum game in a world of increasingly slim education budgets.
SPARK Academy, the high-performing public charter school profiled in the book, not only gets outstanding academic results, but also manages to provide the social and emotional support and individual attention reform opponents always call for, even though Newark charters receive $3,000 less per pupil in annual funding. Russakoff also profiles Princess Williams, a devoted but disheartened teacher who is unable to overcome the bureaucratic inertia of the traditional school system and reluctantly transfers to a charter. I was also amused to learn that, before high school principal Baraka rides a wave of anti-reform sentiment into the mayor’s office, he used federal reform dollars and time-tested reform strategies—extended day, teacher coaches and test preparation—to get results in his school. My only critique of this otherwise excellent book is that Russakoff does a better job capturing the reform community’s missteps than exposing the coordinated efforts to thwart reform. It’s hard to distinguish genuine community pushback from manufactured sabotage. Clearly, there is plenty of both. Interestingly, according to Cerf, under Newark’s new open enrollment system, three quarters of Newark parents listed a school outside their neighborhood as their first choice this year, with more than 40 percent picking a charter. This suggests that some of the same people who voted for Baraka enthusiastically embrace choice. The book projects that charters will serve more than a third of the city’s students by 2017. The author also raises a provocative question in the book’s subtitle:
“Who’s in charge of America’s schools?” “The Prize” suggests it should neither be politicians and bureaucrats—more committed to employment than education—nor reformers disconnected from the community. Instead, schools should be controlled by involved parents and committed teachers with the collective resources to meet student needs both inside and outside the classroom. As Russakoff puts it, “Education reform is too important to be left to reformers alone.” For all of the drama, Newark students are much better off today than five years ago. They have some of the best charter schools in the country and the traditional school system is finally confronting both educational and fiscal realities. It remains to be seen whether Superintendent Cerf and Mayor Baraka can engineer a transition to local control that advances progress or enables retreat. Let’s hope.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with