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$100 million doesn’t turn district around

A new book looks at what went wrong with Newark’s ‘Hemisphere of Hope’
Former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff's new book, "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?," looks at public schools in Newark, N.J.
Former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff's new book, "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?," looks at public schools in Newark, N.J.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce a $100 million grant from Zuckerberg that would transform the district’s schools into a “hemisphere of hope.”

As former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff shows in her new book The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), the reality was much different.

“Mark Zuckerberg came into this without doing a lot of due diligence about what was going to happen with his money,” Russakoff says.

Most funds went to hiring consultants, expanding charter schools, closing low-performing schools and subsequently firing teachers, while scores in math and reading plummeted. “All sides were well intentioned,” Russakoff notes, “which made the failures, as well as the success, that much more important to wrestle with.”

Your book tells a complex story. If you were to pick one or two major mistakes, what would they be?

The first big mistake was a political mistake—trying to massively reconfigure education in a city without having parents of children and teachers at the table. And certainly, they knew that was risky.

But they felt they had to do it because if it were a more open process it would be taken captive by political bosses, by unions, by the organizations that could most easily mobilize opposition.

So they thought that they had to move swiftly, with the state’s power behind them. In their view they are doing it for the kids. But education involves people’s lives and children’s lives. Not to engage them as full partners was a big hole in the whole process.

Charter schools are on the rise in many cities. What impact does that have on district schools?

Look at [philanthropist] Eli Broad’s proposal in Los Angeles to eventually have 50 percent of the students in charters. That’s a huge change. LA has the most charters but not a high percentage of kids in them—yet—because it’s such a large school district.

The problem is that nobody seems to know how to protect the education of kids in the district schools as that’s going on. They will say, “Those schools are failing already, so this doesn’t make them worse.”

But in Newark, the experiences of kids in low-performing schools did get worse, because they were moving among different schools as their schools closed or consolidated. Teachers were laid off. Staffs were transferred. There was a lot of upheaval.

There was one particular student I followed. After his school closed and consolidated into another school, he and quite a few other kids didn’t have math or English on their schedule the entire first semester because there was a breakdown in the scheduling of students at those schools. It’s a huge operation to close and consolidate schools, and a lot of kids get caught in the cracks.

To your point, that student was reading at a second-grade level in middle school. His teachers built a support system for him, and he improved. When he was moved to another school, the support system didn’t go with him, and his progress was lost.

On top of that, he had to deal with the horrible situation of his friend being stabbed to death right before his eyes. If he had still been in the other school, everyone around him would have known what had happened and would have been making sure that he got support and attention. But no one at his new school knew, so he was left to deal with this on his own.

Here was a kid who had failed all his life and who had just lost all ability to believe that he could learn. Then he had begun to feel for the first time that he actually could learn and could succeed. But he fell back because there was no one there to make sure that he stayed on track.

Many of the reformers say poverty is an excuse and the real problem is bad teachers and incompetent bureaucracies.

But then if you go back to just how complex everything is, there are some schools and some people who say, “Well, it’s the kids. It’s not our schools. It’s not our teachers.” The point is that to tar everyone with the brush that says, “Well, inner-city kids are failing because teachers and schools are making an excuse out of poverty,” just seems so clueless when you spend time in a city like Newark.

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million commitment expires this year. How will the loss of that revenue hurt?

The money that he put in was not funding daily operations of the schools, not going to the classroom. That money was going, first, to fund the expansion of charter schools, which it did, and also to fund the reform of the systems that ran the school districts.

But there is money left. They had raised and committed an extra $30 million for two different purposes. One was a principals’ contract, which, so far, hasn’t happened because there are no negotiations going on between the principals and the district—they are so far apart.

And they were going to have a fund to buy out the “bad teachers.” But they didn’t buy them out. In federal pension law, if you do a buyout you have to offer it to all people in a given category, such as all people who have been there longer than 20 years or are over a certain age. But you can’t just say “all bad teachers.”

A buyout would have to be for all teachers, good, bad and indifferent. Then they couldn’t guarantee that only the “bad teachers” would leave. So they raised money for a buyout, but it’s not going to go to that.

What will they do with the money?

They are talking about using it to develop community schools. That’s the model of schools that have social services not just for the kids, but also for adults and also for the neighborhood, and try to have a holistic approach. But then the question becomes: How will they pay for it after that money runs out?

The reform movement seems to paint in broad strokes without addressing underlying problems.

Right. They’ll say, “We’re just going to bring in a really energetic young teacher who will raise their expectations and make them want to learn more.” Any teacher on the front lines knows how much more complicated it is than that.

Earlier when you asked me about the mistakes, I was thinking that another mistake was not focusing on what’s needed at the classroom level to get the support that children need so that the teachers can actually reach them.

Instead of saying, “Well, from a management perspective this is how you manage a district better,” why not start with what the best teachers in the most troubled schools see as the needs of education. That would have been such a powerful way to start thinking about this.

The same scenario will likely play out elsewhere as the charter movement grows, yes?

Maybe they can figure out how to expand charter schools in a way that isn’t as devastating to the schools that will remain and that will, in most cases, be educating a majority of the kids in the city.

There is a chapter in the book called “District School, Charter School” where I found that the charter school got more money per pupil than the district school, which started out with so much more money per pupil. But I wonder if that’s true generally and why is it?

Is it because school districts have all the legacy jobs from having, over the years, been employers of last resort in inner cities, and there were a lot of public jobs that were created because people needed jobs or because political bosses wanted to reward certain people who were friendly to them?

In other words, the districts have served purposes other than just delivering education over the generations. They’ve been part of the whole political patronage system. Is that why? I’d love to know what your readers think.

Let’s put it to our readers and see what they say. They can reply via email to tgoral@promediagrp.com.

That would be great, because I do feel like that particular charter had a lot more flexibility than the district school did. They had the resources to hire extra teachers, extra tutors, extra social workers—people who really could address the consequences of poverty that children brought to the classroom every day. And the district schools just didn’t have the resources to do that.

You could see why parents would say, “My kid is going to get all this? I’m going to send them to a charter school.” So that’s my question. I would like to understand: What is the impediment to getting a lot more money to those kids at the classroom level?

Tim Goral is senior editor.