Politics & Policy

School Reform: Tough Lessons from Newark

How do you fix an expensive, dysfunctional school system? A dramatic effort, which has foundered.

In the most recent New Yorker, Dale Russakoff has penned a remarkably lucid examination of a four-year effort to transform the Newark school system. He recounts how Newark’s then-mayor Cory Booker (now a senator), New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg jointly pledged a dramatic effort to transform education in Newark, and he details the bumpy road that their efforts have traveled since.

In September 2010, Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to support school reform in the city. The gift was conditioned on the city’s raising $100 million in matching funds. It was the biggest gift, by far, ever given to a single school system.

In elucidating the problem, Russakoff effectively captures the dysfunction that prevailed in Newark. He writes: “The ratio of administrators to students — one to six — was almost twice the state average. Clerks made up 30 percent of the central bureaucracy — about four times the ratio in comparable cities. Even some clerks had clerks, yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate.”

Less than half of Newark school funds actually reached students. Meanwhile, the system was spending $1 billion a year on 38,000 students — or more than $26,000 per student. This meant that Zuckerberg’s gift, even with the match, would amount to just a 4 percent annual boost over the five-year payout period. Meanwhile, $30 million of Zuckerberg’s gift would be needed for back pay just to get the union to agree to a modest merit-pay system, in which an outstanding teacher, after nine years, could earn $60,000.

The results so far have been uneven, at best. Test results have been disappointing, and in the spring of 2013, the district announced a $57 million budget gap, which it addressed with extensive layoffs. Hard-charging superintendent Cami Anderson has moved out of the city because of threats against her family. Mayor Booker has left for the U.S. Senate, and his successor, Ras Baraka, is the most visible opponent of reform. Plans for dramatic charter-school expansion have been slowed, and the district’s makeover is caught up in local politics.

Three thoughts on all this. (1) 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.

(2) Striking throughout Russakoff’s account is the degree to which well-intentioned social reformers have approached reform as a technocratic exercise. The effort was launched with Booker’s “five-year” plan (which went off the rails in the first six months). Newark’s passionate superintendent, Cami Anderson, describes her reform strategy as “16-dimensional chess.” The launching or expansion of new schools of choice became a matter of the most carefully calibrated central planning.

(3) Education is routinely declared the “civil-rights issue of our time,” and Russakoff’s account suggests that success will come only when these efforts are led by members of the community rather than ambitious pols or self-assured outsiders. But the Newark tale also raises some hard questions about what such a course would ultimately amount to. What if residents in urban communities that are stuck with abysmal, expensive schools don’t want to engage in bitter fights with their friends and neighbors — even if that is the price of school reform? What if they think that the promise of comfortable, secure public jobs in the here and now triumphs over the possibility that schools will improve? What if residents in urban communities would rather demand more funds than embrace painful changes?

These are the very problems that undid urban reform efforts 40 years ago, and they still face today’s new generation of impassioned education reformers.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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