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Laura Waters

Once Upon a Time...in Newark

There’s a new kind of fairy tale in the annals of those who denigrate efforts at education reform. It goes something like this:
  1. Beleaguered city school system, beset by poverty and low achievement, is sucked into the education reform machine that issues empty promises about academic gains and efficiency.
  2. Beleaguered system is co-opted by politicians, consultants and edu-entrepreneurs who fire hard-working local teachers and administrators, close beloved neighborhood schools and turn blind eyes to discriminatory policies of new-fangled charter schools that cream off higher-achievers and abandon kids with special needs and English language learners.
  3. Enriched politicians and hedge-fund managers trot-off to new opportunities, leaving the beleaguered school system in worse shape than it started.
This neat narrative is the basis of Alex Kotlowitz’s new book review about “The Prize” by Dale Russakoff. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book yet (although I will)—just the review, which creates its own narrative about school reform.

Some Backstory

So let’s get a few things straight. Indeed, New Jersey Gov. (and presidential candidate) Chris Christie, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, along with callow Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announced five years ago—on Oprah, no less!—that Zuckerberg would give Newark Public Schools a $100 million grant to rebuild its long-suffering school system. How long-suffering? Kotlowitz doesn’t bother with details so much—and, in fairness, it was just a book review—but Newark Public Schools’ failure to educate students goes back almost one hundred years. A 1927 report to the Newark schools remarks that: [T]here is no community in our country, or perhaps in any other country, that has a more complex school problem to solve than has the City of Newark.” Robert Curvin, civil rights leader and author of “ Inside Newark ” describes a century of school district corruption and patronage that has “shortchange[d] the overwhelming majority of children who enter its classrooms.” In 1993, a state report issued just before the state took over the district, concluded that “the Newark Public School system has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled.” Every Newark mayor since 1962, except for Cory Booker and current Mayor Ras Baraka, has been indicted for crimes committed while in office. Until last year, 4 in 10 Newark public school students never graduated from high school. According to the New Jersey Department of Education , 84.1 percent of students newly-enrolled in Essex County Community College (the closest two-year college to Newark) have to take remedial courses and the three-year graduation rate is 11.8 percent.

Enter Stage Left

So in struts the mighty trio of Christie, Booker and Zuckerberg and, according to the anti-reform fairy tale formula, chaos ensues. “Their plan gets off to a rocky start,” writes Kotlowitz, as “their moneyed backers” exercise “their ideological furor to create more charter schools.” They hire “white...consultants” and bring on “ideologue” Cami Anderson as superintendent. Hence, “this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success” and Newark residents live unhappily ever after. But what really happened? First of all, let’s talk money. Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation (matched by another $100 million raised by Booker) is only 11 percent of Newark’s annual budget . Almost the entire donation went to a new teacher contract , championed by AFT President Randi Weingarten , that financed retro pay and gave teachers the choice of accepting annual raises through the traditional salary guide process or through merit bonuses. To be fair, money was also spent on an ill-conceived community outreach program too. But money was never the problem: the annual cost per pupil in Newark is $16,403 . Superintendent Anderson (she’s just been replaced by former New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf) was no idealogue but she was politically tone-deaf and thin-skinned. She was also flummoxed by budgetary problems, as well as achieving the proper balance between community demand for more charter school seats and prudent growth of alternatives. (Currently, among Newark Public Schools’ 46,000 students, about 30 percent have chosen charter schools and another 10,000 students are on waiting lists.) And it’s no wonder that parents choose alternatives. According to the 2015 edition of Newark Kids Count , published by Advocates for Children of New Jersey:
A substantial and persistent achievement gap exists in pass rates among students in Newark traditional public schools and charter schools. For example, while 71 percent of charter school students in Newark passed third-grade language arts tests in 2013-14—higher than the state average of 66 percent—only 41 percent of students in Newark traditional public schools passed those tests. Similarly, just 42 percent of traditional school students passed eighth-grade math tests, compared to 75 percent for charter school students. Comparable trends can be seen throughout other grades and tests.
While Anderson was never anyone’s best buddy—in fact, current Mayor Ras Baraka, Booker’s replacement, ran his campaign as a referendum against Anderson—traditional schools did improve under her watch. In 2014, four years into her tenure, the graduation rate was up to 68 percent, from 54 percent in 2009.

Plot Twist

Newark, in Kotlowitz’s narrative construct, is a national “compass for school reform.” But maybe that’s the wrong compass. A better choice might be Camden, where Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is successfully, albeit quietly, implementing many of the reforms attempted in Newark: universal enrollment in charter and district schools, an innovative collaboration between charters and traditional schools, comprehensive and ongoing community outreach and a much-praised and widely-shared strategic plan called the Camden Commitment . Rouhanifard is listening to parents, and what he’s hearing is not very different from what Anderson heard from Newark parents: we want great schools for our kids, and we don’t really care what they’re called. For example, this past February, 50 Camden parents handed Superintendent Rouhanifard a stack of petitions  signed by over 1,000 families requesting an expansion of Mastery Charter Schools. Mary Jane Timbe, a Camden mother of four, declared, “We want more Mastery schools. We want our kids to be able to attend from kindergarten to 12th grade and then on to college.” Sherell Sharp, parent of a fifth-grade Mastery North Camden School student, explained to Rouhanifard that “for my daughter, Mastery means that she hops out of bed and is ready to go to school [and] that’s after years of her hating school. That’s a blessing.” That’s a different narrative, isn’t it? And it has the virtue of being true.

The Moral of the Story?

The fairy tale about reform would be less concerning if it was limited to Newark. But this neat little fiction is practically becoming a franchise, a kind of anti-reform McDonald’s. Just this past week Louisiana Superintendent John White deconstructed a Grimm Brothers-inspired fairy tale of New Orleans’ schools (also in a New York Times op-ed ) that follows the same formula as that presented in Kotlowitz’s narrative: public schools in trouble (with the dramatic extra element of Katrina); reformers come in and pad their pockets; community ignored; kids suffer. (Also see Peter Cook and Chris Stewart .) This compelling narrative has one fatal flaw: it ignores the facts. So does Kotlowitz’s review of Russakoff’s book. It makes for great copy if you’re comforted by familiar tall-tales by the campfire. But it’s less satisfactory if you're concerned with the actual academic hopes and dreams of underserved children.  
UPDATE: This post was updated on August 28, 2015, to more clearly reflect that the author was focused on the New York Times book review of Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize”, and not necessarily the book itself. Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years. An earlier version of this post appeared on her blog, New Jersey Left Behind, as Deconstructing the “Narrative” of Newark Public Schools.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...

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