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The New Yorker Examines the Education That Reformers Got in Newark

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The New Yorker magazine has one of those long stories this week that are a pleasure to have in hand when you're settling in for a long flight or train ride.

In "Schooled," Dale Russakoff examines the school reform effort hatched for the Newark, N.J., schools four years ago by Gov. Chris Christie, then-Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

I remember watching Oprah Winfrey's show when Zuckerberg came on in 2010 to unveil a $100 million contribution (in the form of a challenge grant) to improve Newark's schools.

"Newark is really just because I believe in these guys," Zuckerberg said, gesturing to Christie and Booker. The grant would give them the "flexibility they need to ... turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation."

After the headline-grabbing announcement, I'll admit that I largely tuned out what followed on the ground in Newark over the next four years. I missed a lot, and Russakoff's report is detailed and dramatic. It would even make a good movie in the vein of "The Social Network." 

The piece is also obviously timed to one dramatic concluding chapter: Tuesday's mayoral election to replace the Democrat Booker, who won election to the U.S. Senate last year after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Without wanting to ruin the drama of Russakoff's story, here are a few nuggets from the piece:

  • She repeats a quote about the troubled Newark school district by Ross Danis of the Newark Trust for Education (said in 2010): "The Newark schools are like a candy store that's a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling."
  • Booker, the piece notes, was "the first Newark mayor in 50 years not to be indicted."
  • During the first two years of the reform process under the challenge grant, Russakoff says, "more than $20 million of Zuckerberg's gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation." As one Newark activist observes in the article, "Everybody's getting paid, but Raheem still can't read."
  • After some concern that the state-run Newark district had no superintendent long after the challenge-grant effort had begun, Christie in May 2011 appointed Cami Anderson, who had largely worked in reform efforts such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. "It quickly emerged that she differed with her bosses about the role of charter schools in urban districts," Russakoff writes. 

Three years have gone by since then, with many ups and downs for Anderson's leadership. Things are likely to come to a head on Election Day, when Ras Baraka, a city councilman and school principal who is backed by education workers' unions, faces Shavar Jeffries, who is backed by the reform movement, Russakoff says.

After this story, The New Yorker might have to amend its classic cover cartoon view of the United States to identify Newark in the little sliver to the west of Manhattan labeled simply as "Jersey."

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