If you’re a legislator who votes on education issues and you haven’t read Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, then you are failing your own education — and the constituents who count on you to make the best decisions.
Although no Connecticut city is as high profile in the education reform battle as Newark, which received a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, there are interesting parallels to observe and lessons to be learned.
The reform movement has been characterized by jargon and combative rhetoric in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie described plans for Newark by saying the state needed to “grab the system by the roots, pull it out and start over.”
Other examples include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s famous utterance: “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” and former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor and Students First CEO Michelle Rhee’s statement that, “Cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
Is such rhetoric aimed at largely minority communities in which the schools to be reformed are based? Or is it geared toward a different audience: the powerful funders of the education reform movement?
Russakoff quotes Newark resident and teacher Princess Williams. “My calling is to fix the public schools … If something is broken and we have the power to fix it, why would we abandon it for something else?”
“It’s not about children,” observes former Bridgeport Board of Education member and current candidate, Maria Pereira, of education reform rhetoric. “It’s about the 39 percent federal tax credit they get when they open charter schools in urban communities.”
Look at the epicenters of school reform and you’ll see one critical thing in common – mayoral or state control. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Newark: If there’s an elected local school board, it’s merely in an “advisory” capacity.
Here in Connecticut, New Haven’s school board will in November elect two out of seven members after a charter change that was resisted by former Mayor John DeStefano, who argued that his ability to appoint the entire board himself helped accelerate reform. Hartford has four elected members and five appointed. In November 2012, after the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a 2011 state takeover of the school district, voters defeated Mayor Bill Finch’s well-funded attempt to initiate mayoral control in Bridgeport.
“Bridgeport became a national epicenter of the debate. That’s reflective of management style,” said Howard Gardner, a current member of the elected Bridgeport Board of Education.
“Any city where they want to get rid of your elected school board, you better know what’s coming,” said Pereira “They know that’s the only thing that stands as a barrier or opposition. Everywhere there’s been a proliferation of charter schools, privatization, it’s been where they got rid of an elected school board.”
Russakoff’s book keenly observes the difference between Cory Booker’s lofty public rhetoric of “bottom-up” reform led by the people of Newark with his de facto actions: using private foundation money, for which no public notice was required or given, and making decisions that raise significant ethics questions. For example: “A substantial portion of the paycheck of the person who counseled Booker on policies affecting the district as well as the charter schools came not from taxpayers, but from a privately funded charter school organization.”
This matters for several reasons. First, the research on mayoral control doesn’t conclusively point to better results for students. It does, however, point to cronyism, corruption and money being diverted away from the classroom into the hands of consultants. Just look at Rahm Emanuel’s appointed CEO of Chicago schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennet, who just pleaded guilty to a $2.3 million kickback scheme for no-bid contracts – this in the wake of presiding over massive community school closings, primarily in low-income black and Latino areas. Second, as Russakoff points out, “almost all philanthropy is by definition undemocratic, its priorities determined by wealthy donors and boards of trustees, who by extension can shape the direction of public policy in far away communities.”
Look at how the $5 million Gates Foundation grant to Hartford was structured. It was paid through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which received a $150,000 management fee. Although the conditions of the grant required the spending of taxpayer money, there was no vote, and very little transparency. We all know how the Jumoke-directed part of that grant worked out.
Is it any wonder that in Newark, “Charters had become a code word …for rich, white outsiders who hid self-interest behind a veil of altruism.”
One of the first things Booker did in Newark was to launch a “community engagement campaign.” He hired someone from outside the community, Bradley Tusk of Tusk Strategies in New York City, and without any public disclosure gave Tusk a $1 million contract, which Russakoff reports eventually rose to almost $2 million. What’s more, everyone Tusk hired, according to Russakoff, had connections to the education reform movement.
Russakoff reveals that in Newark, Tusk spent heavily on billboards, television and radio, despite being warned by local organizers that “word of mouth from neighbors, friends and family was far more powerful.”
Afterward, a board member of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, said: “It wasn’t real community engagement. It was public relations.”
Sounds like what Jorge Cabrera told me about his experience with Excel Bridgeport here in Connecticut: “I told them, you have to spend time on the ground. You have to actually listen. But that was never the intent. The intent was to convince. On more than one occasion my boss would say: ‘Use language that will convince the parents.’ And I would think ‘That’s not organizing — that’s marketing.’”
If I had to give a prize for the reformer who actually seems to get it in The Prize, it would go to Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan.
Whereas Zuckerberg persists, like most reformers do, of thinking of education like a business, and teachers as motivated by big bucks like Wall Street executives and those in the tech industry, Chan, according to Russakoff, has a different outlook: “In her view, investing in children had value for its own sake…’Who knows what that kid’s going to do?’”
That sentiment is echoed by Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall, of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University: “Individuals, like me, who go into public education, never did so because they felt teaching would be a lucrative career. The payback, we know, arrives from working with our young people and helping them to become lifelong learners and success stories. We should think more critically about what is being done to public education in America and listen to public school teachers and students more for what they need. They know what works, but have been silenced by the reform movements.”
Those of us who fight for public education do so because we believe it is the foundation of a healthy, functioning democracy; that the purpose of education isn’t merely to produce good workers, but good citizens.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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