Mark Zuckerberg's Vietnam: Lessons from the Newark Debacle

Dale Russakoff's  deeply reported account of a philanthropy-funded school reform initiative hit the New Yorker pages almost to the day of Brown v. Board of Education’s 60th anniversary, sending the Twittersphere abuzz about what kind of progress urban schools have made since that historic decision.

Russakoff’s fascinating tale explains how Mayor Cory Bookers’ idea of a charter-driven reform began to gather legs when rock star billionaire Mark Zuckerberg conditionally pledged $100 million to the initiative, and then spiralled down into the muck from there. 

Whether you read the story as a morality tale about how the naive hopes of what Peter Buffett calls "colonial philanthropists" inevitably clash against the reality of urban residents who resist outsiders telling them how to run their schools, or as a laugh-out-loud tale of how even the brightest technocrats do not do politics well, depends on where you sit. If you are a Newark resident and you find yourself still sending your child to a crumbling school building, you may well be outraged that millions were spent hiring outside consulting firms instead of buying such missing essentials as textbooks.  

If you are somebody who believes that public education should be shaped by democratic deliberation rather than private money, you'll be appalled at the new details in Russakoff’s article of just how much sway private money came to have over the Newark school system—and the sheer arrogance of billionaires who think they can parachute into complicated situations and save the day. 

Beyond these obvious critiques, though, what are some more practical lessons for education philanthropy from the Newark debacle?

Lesson One: Have a Coherent Plan Together Before Going on Oprah

In Russakoff’s account, the idea for a large-scale education reform initiative began as a December 2009 conversation in the backseat of Booker’s SUV as he was showing Governor Christie how far his old neighborhood of South Orange had fallen. This ultimately led to a confidential reform proposal that landed on Christie’s desk the following summer. Soon thereafter, Booker was pitching the plan to billionaire donors and winning lots of important support from venture capitalists like John Doerr.

Despite never having even visited Newark, let alone the city’s schools, Zuckerberg was so taken with Booker and his vision, that he pledged $100 million over five years with the stipulation that the funds be released as matching dollars. Booker also managed to convince Zuckerberg to announce the gift on Oprah. But even as the high-profile announcement led expectations from the community to soar, the actual plan remained vague to all but Booker, Christie and their close political associates. That was because Booker really did not have a detailed plan beyond his goal to “make Newark the charter capital of the nation” through a top-down process that could not “be taken captive by the unions or machine politicians.”

How he was going to do this without addressing the existing dysfunctional schools protected by tenure and tightly worded union contracts or community support remained unclear. Nor was it clear how it was possible to reconcile a central contradiction in Booker's vision: reviving the city's school system using charter schools drains both money and good students away from other schools in the system, leaving the less fortunate behind.

What happened next could have been predicted: ad hoc crisis management as things unravelled and lots of money disappeared into the pockets of consultants. 

Lesson Two: Hire a Leader Early who Actually Supports your Plan

After Camie Anderson was appointed as Newark Superintendent in May 2011, she quickly saw the contradictions in the strategy, recognizing that the plan could not "revive the district" if it meant that the poorest families, the ESL population, and those with disabilities would be condemned to inferior, non-charter schools. She also saw that the district's yawning budget gap was made worse by an exodus of students to charter schools. She was forced to tell her bosses that “your theories of change are on a collision course." In her own words, she was forced to improvise and play “sixteen-dimensional chess” to ensure that the charters enrolled representative portions of the community, schools closed without civil unrest, and that the best teachers were retained.

Many of Anderson's decisions produced conflict with the team that put her in place, creating tension and complications. Instead of having this conversation play out in public, it would have been better to have hammered out these clear differences of approach before the hiring decision was made.

Lesson Three: Engage the Community for Real

Many of the new philanthropic dollars went into paying consultants and groups such as Tusk Strategies, based in New York, that received $1.3 million to manage a school community engagement campaign that was designed more for public relations than reform. While hundreds of residents attended the forums, Russakoff could find no evidence of any follow-up and even those who volunteered as mentors were never contacted. Despite pleas to be informed and involved, the public was locked out of the process. The Foundation for Newark’s Future (FNF) agreed to appoint a community advisory board two years after the initial public meetings and after most of the funds were committed.

Altogether, around $20 million dollars of matching support went to pay consultants that left the solid impression best expressed in the words of Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County: “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still cannot read.” The community backlash, when it came, was fueled by such insensitivity, by the lack of transparency about how and why funds were spent, and whose voices did or did not count. As a result, an alternative narrative gained traction that the reform strategy was about siphoning off the billion-dollar school budget to private interests, and that Newark needed certain schools to fail so that they could be turned into charters.

The “us against them” rhetoric reached its head when former principal Ras Baraka announced his candidacy for mayor by vowing to “take back Newark from control of outsiders,” and then attracting the likes of Randi Weingarten, head of AFT, demanding that the community “gets its its schools back.” If the planners had been even slightly receptive to community input, the backlash wouldn't have been so intense. 

Conclusion

I'll leave it to others to say whether billionaires should be meddling at all in public education systems, which have long been regarded as one of America's most democratic institutions. But if you are going to try and change a broken system—rife with abuse, corruption, racism and a multitude of other evils—it might be a good idea to understand both why and how it sustained itself over the years to avoid falling victim to these savage dynamics. Russakoff reveals that the major players in the drama may have had some clue about Newark’s troubled history, but were not prepared to understand its full implications. Cory Booker should have known the deal, and was trusted by Zuckerberg to keep the reform effort on track. But he was too busy building his national profile and speaking all over the country to give the initiative the daily attention it needed.

The question remains: Will the many failures of the Newark reform plan outweigh its successes? It should not be forgotten that some very real successes have been achieved. According to Rusakoff, twelve of the lowest performing schools have been reconstituted into eight consolidated schools whose principals can now recruit their staffs and can draw upon math and literacy coaches. Teachers now work an extended day and for two additional weeks in the summer, but only one school has shown gains in reading scores. As the New Yorker writer points out “the solutions may be closer than either side acknowledges”

Following the recent mayoral election of Baraka, it will take much more hard work and trust-building to repair the damage from the initial flawed approaches. Time will tell whether Fred Hess is right in postulating that “by the time the legacy costs are accounted for and the requisite political compromises are made, the effort hardly seems sufficient to transform a system suffused with dysfunction.”