In Newark, New Yorker Magazine Grabs Attention of Educators, Politicos

John Mooney | May 13, 2014 | Education, Politics
Magazine publishes tale of unlikely partnership between Cory Booker, Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Christie – and what’s become of infamous $100M gift to Newark schools

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
The day before a pivotal mayoral election, and with Newark’s public schools the target of reorganization plan that could eliminate hundreds of teachers, the buzz among the city’s educators and pols yesterday was all about . . .

. . . an 11,000-word story in the venerable New Yorker magazine.

It was probably the fact-checkers who got things going, calling to check quotes from a host of sources, sources who had something to say in author-journalist Dale Russakoff’s chronicle of the unlikely friendship between then-mayor Cory Booker, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Governor-elect Chris Christie.

It was the friendship that set in motion Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the Newark school district, a generous gift that Russakoff maintains is either spent or committed — an assertion that would certainly get some buzz going.

Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter, is currently completing a book on the Newark saga, but the first look was published yesterday in the New Yorker’s lead article “Schooled: Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg Had a Plan to Reform Newark’s Schools. They Got an Education.”

The following excerpts are from rare interviews with Zuckerberg and Booker on the state of the schools since the 2011 gift, and of a friendship that started at a retreat in Sun Valley, ID.

A month after their walk in Sun Valley, Booker gave Zuckerberg a six-point reform agenda. Its top priority was a new labor contract that would significantly reward Newark teachers who improved student performance. “Over the long term, that’s the only way they’re going to get the very best people, a lot of the very best people,” Zuckerberg told me. He proposed that the best teachers receive bonuses of up to fifty percent of their salary, a common incentive in Silicon Valley but impossible in Newark. The district couldn’t have sustained it once Zuckerberg’s largesse ran out.

The district and the Newark Teachers Union did eventually settle a momentous contract, with the Zuckerberg money helping pay for bonuses of up to $12,500 for high-performing teachers. The Zuckerberg money went elsewhere, too, according to Russakoff, much of it to consultants in the district.

During the next two years, 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.

Many of the consultants had worked for [former New York City schools chancellor] Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.

The article takes the story all the way to today’s election for Booker’s successor, in the race between Councilman Ras Baraka and Seton Hall Law professor Shavar Jeffries. At the center of the contentious campaign has been Newark’s reorganization — “One Newark” — under state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson, including a controversial universal enrollment system for both district and charter schools.

In some of his few public comments on the plan since he left Newark, Booker sums up the local outcry and his own belief that it will be worth the fight.

Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families’ fear and anger: “My mom — she would’ve been fit to be tied with some of what happened.” But he characterized the rancor as “a sort of nadir,” and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. “That’s pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.”

The full article is available online.