Just as a footnote before I begin, I read Dale Rusakoff’s The Prize: Whose in Charge of America’s Schools on my kindle, an experience I usually avoid, given my preference for physically annotating texts, and coming back to key passages that strike me as interesting, relevant, or unclear. At the same time, the kindle experience helped me read the book as if I were reading a suspenseful story while flying cross country, concentrating more on the overarching narrative, rather than the minutiae of the reform regime Corey Booker sought to institute, with the support of Zuckerberg and a host of wealthy hedge fund managers and McKinsey Consultants. I should also add one more footnote. I can’t stand Corey Booker. He has always struck me as inauthentic and opportunistic, an orator with beautiful rhetorical flourishes but a depressing lack of progressive principle. So I was not surprised to see him so blind to the problems in Newark, or rather, so obsessed with solving educational problems using the techniques of neoliberalism, that he ignored the collective wisdom and ground level experience of teachers, students, and community members, for the resources and expertise of the top 1%.
The Prize is a tragedy; there’s no other way to describe the story. The crux of the story is the 100-million-dollar grant given by Mark Zuckerberg, and his interest in using the funds to improve education through business style reforms. Booker presented Newark as a “proof point” city, an ideal location for privatization through charters, given the city’s crumbling educational infrastructure, abysmal test scores, failing schools, and astonishing rates of poverty (42 % of children living below the poverty line). Naturally, fixing Newark’s problems had bipartisan appeal, with the answer lying in “sophisticated data and accountability systems,” (i.e., performance pay) and a commitment to gutting unions and tenure systems. Chris Christie joined the team, and the search begun for a school commissioner that could institute reforms that would turn Newark into the “charter school capital of the nation.” Zuckerberg falls for these figures completely, perhaps eager for a quick fix (the book suggests there might be some relationship between the gift he gave, and the bad press the The Social Network was receiving). Eventually, Team Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg hire Cami Anderson, a compelling figure because of her her background working with Teach for America, and her connection to Joel Klein. In a city with pervasive poverty, Anderson, who hails from Manhattan Beach, takes a $300,000 salary, and hires pricey consultants. She then proceeds to reorganize the school system by reassigning students to schools in different districts, and ignoring neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, Chris Christie and Corey Booker continue to pursue their political ambitions, and Zuckerberg, who was smitten by the rock star mayor, confronts the failure of the project, and goes on to pursue more directed educational philanthropy.
The Prize relates to many readings on social justice and educational reform. On a general level, first, the book is about the failure of school reform, and a stunning neglect of the sources of educational failure – poverty, inequality, and urban decay. Yet it’s also a book about two different forms of cultural wealth. On the one hand, there is Booker, who despite his roots in Newark, becomes successful because he leverages middle-upper class capital into political success. On the other hand, there is the cultural wealth embodied in teachers like Milagros Harris, Principals like Ras Baraka, and the community surrounding Central High School. This is a theme that Tarra Yasso takes up in “Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” In her article, Yasso highlights the role of schools as socialization machines, institutions that create capital considered valuable in a hierarchical society. The kind of capital used to solve the problems in Newark came outside of Newark, from boardrooms in New York, and investor meetings at Sun Valley and Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, Newark was constructed as a space filled with disadvantages and failure, rather than a city with its own cultural power. Meanwhile, the entire history of Newark reflects the racialization of US cities, with a once majority white city giving way to a majority black city after the riots of the 1960s. In Andrea Evans’ “School Leaders and Their Sense Making about Race and Demographic Change,” she notes how demographic issues are routinely ignored by many school leaders, along with the influence of race on academic achievement. The larger theme of sense making also helps us understand how the concept of race is interpreted differently, particularly by leaders making decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and professional development. In the case of The Prize, the book really reveals how the political establishment perceived the problems in Newark, where the focus was narrowly directed on school performance, rather than the larger social context in which schools operate. Finally, many of the themes in the book seem to converge with Jackie Blount’s argument in “Educational Leadership through Equity, Diversity, Social Justice and Educational Leadership for the Privilege Imperative.” In particular, Blount’s observation that “Students still see exceedingly few school administrators who look like themselves or understand the world form a familiar cultural perspective” makes me think of the dissonant imagine of Cami Anderson visiting Science Park High School, and trying to make conversation with students who had no idea who she was.
In the end, I enjoyed reading The Prize, even though it was evident from the beginning how wrongheaded Booker was, and how eager he was to transform a district in order to burnish his credentials. Perhaps this is an unfair characterization, but Booker’s recent support for Big Pharma’s interest in driving up prices reminds me how easily he forsakes his principles to advance his transparent ambitions. Then he gets up to the microphone and starts talking about the great civil rights challenges of our day. Feels so hypocritical.