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How A $100M Facebook Donation For Neoliberal School 'Reform' Sparked A Grassroots Uprising In N.J.

Here's what you get when you assume that private money can buy better schools, and you don't bother to get buy in from the teachers and parents before deciding to "reform" an education system.

Here's what you get when you assume that private money can buy better schools, and you don't bother to get buy in from the teachers and parents before deciding to "reform" an education system (a.k.a. funneling money which should be paying for education to line the pockets of your friends managing these charter schools).

From this Wednesday's Democracy Now: How a $100M Facebook Donation for Neoliberal School Reform Sparked a Grassroots Uprising in Newark:

Five years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix the trouble-plagued schools of Newark, New Jersey. Joining forces with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and then-Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, the effort was billed as a model for education reform across the nation.

But the story of what followed emerges as a cautionary tale. Tens of millions were spent on hiring outside consultants and expanding charter schools, leading to public school closures, teacher layoffs and an overall decline in student performance. Parents, students, teachers and community members pushed back in a grassroots uprising to save their schools.

We are joined by Dale Russakoff, who tells the story in her book, "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?"

[...]

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that one of the biggest surprises is that Mark Zuckerberg came into this without doing a lot of due diligence about what was going to happen with his money. The best you could say is that Cory Booker swept him off his feet and told him that he—

AMY GOODMAN: How did they meet?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Oh, well, they met at a retreat for billionaires and politicians and celebrities, which is held every year in Sun Valley, Idaho. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The retreat is called?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: It’s—

AMY GOODMAN: It doesn’t have a name?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: I don’t think it has a name. But it’s Herbert Allen, the investment banker, sponsors it every year. And it just so happened that they were both going, Booker as a presenter and Zuckerberg as a billionaire investor. And it was the first time for both of them. And they met, and Cory Booker knew that Zuckerberg was going to be there, and he knew also that Zuckerberg was contemplating, at age 26, his first act as a philanthropist and that he wanted to do something, quote, "big," unquote, in education. And Booker persuaded him that this was something that he should invest his money in, that Newark was on the verge of a revolutionary change in education and that his $100 million could make a big difference. So, there really wasn’t a tremendous amount of due diligence. The way that Booker presented it to him was almost like, you know, a startup of a tech company, that we’ll have a proof point in Newark, we’ll find just five or six things that we can do here that will transform education, and then we can take it to every city in the country, every inner city that has struggling schools, and that Zuckerberg, as a philanthropist, could spend the rest of his philanthropic life changing urban schools for the better.


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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you talk a lot about—in the book, about how this was an attempt, as much of what’s happening in education is today, of reform from the top down—

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of a few people coming up with a plan, finding the finances and then imposing their will on every—all the other stakeholders in the system. Could you talk about how that played out in Newark?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes. Well, you know, it sounded like it would play out pretty easily, because Chris Christie, as the governor, controlled the schools. The governor had controlled the schools for, at that point, 15 years, because there had been a state takeover in 1995 after findings of rampant corruption and terrible neglect of students. So—but the state had not really improved the situation in Newark. Nonetheless, they thought that they had all the power they needed to bring this about. But what happened was, this was—I mean, in Booker and Christie and Zuckerberg’s view, it was important to bypass the people and bypass the local power structure, because they felt the powers that be would undermine education reform, because unions and political bosses would try to defend the status quo. So their point was, in the name of the children, we’re going to bypass the democratic process. But what happened in Newark was that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And—but also bypass the parents of those children.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, exactly. That’s what I was going to say, that it wasn’t just that they were bypassing the unions and the bosses. The parents of the children of Newark found out about this revolutionary change from Oprah, just the way the national television audience did. There was no preparation and no discussion, no input. And so, over—as the details began to come out, and they began to find out what was going to happen in the way of school closings and layoffs and children having to switch—you know, thousands of children having to switch schools because their schools were either closing or consolidating, it became just a grassroots revolution almost. And I think that that’s the reason that Governor Christie wanted to wash his hands of this whole thing, after having gone on Oprah and tried to sort of tout it as a national model.

And so, the political uprising ended up almost, you know—well, not single-handedly, but significantly helping to elect Ras Baraka, who was a high school principal, who ran for mayor almost exclusively on a platform of stopping these reforms. And even though the education reform movement put over $5 million into the campaign of his opponent, he won significantly, just because of this grassroots uprising. So, it wasn’t just unions and bosses, it was parents and people in Newark who felt that they—you know, that somebody who didn’t understand the children and whose interests they weren’t really sure of was in charge of their schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the money been spent?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Most of it has—almost all of it has been spent. There’s actually $30 million that hasn’t been spent, because what it was—it was raised and allocated for a principals’ contract and for teacher—for buyouts of bad teachers, and neither of those things came to pass. The principals and the district never reached an agreement, and the buyouts never materialized. So there’s $30 million left. And it looks as if there may be some kind of agreement between the Christie administration and Ras Baraka to spend that—some of that money on creating community schools, which are schools that would have social services not just for students, but also for adults and for neighborhoods, and that schools could be something of a community center, you know, after the school day for children in the neighborhood.

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