The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools by Dale Russakoff came my way via an education blog, and I checked it out from the library immediately. Very quickly I realized that I was going to want to keep a copy, and I ordered the paperback which just came out a couple of weeks ago.
Who owns America's schools indeed? In 2010, on an episode of Oprah, three people sat on stage and announced a one hundred million dollar gift to Newark Public Schools, one that was slated to change the course of tens of thousands of young lives: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This gift was hailed as the opportunity to create a school reform structure that could potentially change the nation. The goal was full scale turnaround in five years. Instead, at the end of that time, much in Newark Public Schools has remained the same and, in many cases, become worse for public school students. While the outside was awestruck at what that amount of money could do for the children of Newark, inside there was a push for charter schools overtaking non-charters, closing of neighborhood schools with no bussing system in place to move students, and pockets of good happening despite, not because of, the push toward reform.
I will lay out my biases for you strait up: I am no fan of either of the two politicians mentioned above, and I haven't been for a while. I have had my eye on what was happening in Newark and around the entire state even if I am not paying super close attention. This book, however, sent me into apoplectic hives at the complete disregard of the citizens of a city in which children are suffering because of massive corruption and a privatization agenda. I will not mince my words here, because this is my blog and I can take a stand. I am also the first to say that charter schools are not inherently bad; I will say, though, that I have an extremely negative reaction to the disregard of funding the very institutions that we have promised our citizens will be the key that unlocks a better future. If you don't know how charter schools are funded or how they are run, please do some basic research. That being said, this book does paint a portrait of some great charters in Newark that have the ability to control their own budgets to serve students where they need the most aid. My argument is that this type of flexibility should be available in public neighborhood schools, not just charters. If we, those of us with privilege as well as political and social capital, continue to remove our students from the district schools and place them in charters, we will continue to deplete the education of those who do not have the ability to move schools. And let me stop your argument there -- charter schools are only in theory available to everyone. They are not, in reality, available to everyone.
Now that THAT is off my chest, I should tell you that, like many books I've been reading lately, this is not an upper. In fact, I found myself boiled over with anger more often than not. As I mentioned early, I am the opposite of a fan of the two politicians who had the strongest hand in this. I appreciate that the author does discuss Zuckerberg's involvement as his first foray into large-scale philanthropy and how he learned from this debacle. While this book is highly critical of the local and state administrations, I also felt that is was a fair critique of what was wrong with the whole five year process of trying to reform Newark public schools. I do understand that the superintendent was stymied by teacher's union contract provisions, and while I am a union member myself, I do believe that it is necessary to come together to figure out how to work with union protections that still serve the greater good of our students. However, it's hard to say that the superintendent was "held up" by the unions when you look at how that one hundred million dollars was spent, hiring consultants out the wazoo and put toward private companies.
We can do better for our students across the nation, particularly those who are most vulnerable to attending schools in large cities where corruption within the system and a mismanagement of money very easily runs rampant. We can do better for everyone. The hardest part of reading this book was watching money fly out the window while school buildings in Newark are literally falling apart -- ceilings collapsing, pipes bursting, unsafe and unsanitary conditions existing in places where young people hope for an education. There is also a long discussion of unsafe neighborhoods and how they contribute to drop out rates. Education has to address not just what's happening IN the building, but also what's happening AROUND the building.
The author did an amazing job of profiling in detail individual schools and even individual teachers and administrators who are working incredibly hard to make a difference for the children of Newark. One of my biggest complaints with new management is that they rarely if ever take the time to ask, "Who is doing this well," then take the time to examine in detail WHY the person or program is doing things well. Instead, like the new Newark superintendent, reformers sweep in and decide to change everything based on their own experience. What happens next is what happened in Newark -- people feel as though their own lives and experiences are being ignored and disavowed -- and then they decide they don't care or they fight against you. Let's decide as reformers that we are going to listen to our community members and come up with solutions that work for US, not for THEM.
On that note, if you want to see change in our education system -- whether it's Newark, Tucson, Atlanta, or Los Angeles -- get involved and do something. Pick up this book, among many others, educate yourself, then figure out how you can pitch in. As one presidential candidate once said, "It takes a village."
It takes a village, indeed.