The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?, journalist Dale Russakoff's riveting account of how a $100 million pledge from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg aimed at turning around the public school system in Newark, New Jersey, went very wrong, very quickly, opens with a scene from 2009. Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark and a rising star in the Democratic Party (he would be elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2013), has invited New Jersey governor-elect Chris Christie, a Republican (and today a candidate for his party's presidential nomination), to join him on a late-night tour of some of Newark's poorest neighborhoods. Sitting in the back seat of an SUV driven by Booker's security detail, the governor-elect is hearing all about Booker's approach to reducing the city's sky-high crime rates. But Booker, according to Russakoff, has another agenda on this particular evening: to enlist Christie's help in transforming public education in the city.
And who wouldn't want that? Newark schools had been failing students, 95 percent of whom were black or Latino in 2009, for decades. "In twenty-three of the district's seventy-five schools fewer than thirty percent of children in grades three through eight could read at grade level," writes Russakoff. "The high school graduation rate was fifty-four percent, and more than ninety percent of graduates who attended the local community college required remedial classes." Operationally, the district was a disaster. "Clerks made up thirty percent of the central bureaucracy...yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate. Test and attendance data had not been entered for months, and computers routinely spat out report cards bearing one child's name and another child's grades...."
It was a daunting challenge, but Booker believed that with "Christie's absolute legal authority and [his own] mayoral bully pulpit, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, weaken tenure protections, [and] reward and punish teachers based on their students' test scores." And so the two men, up-and-coming members of "the growing national movement seeking to reinvent public education" — a movement that included some of the nation's wealthiest philanthropists as well as President Obama and his education secretary,
Arne Duncan — made a pact then and there to fix the city's schools and, in the process, position Newark as an education reform model for struggling urban districts across the country.
Months later, Booker presented Christie with a confidential proposal titled "Newark Public Schools – A Reform Plan." The plan described a process that was top down (so as to avoid "being taken captive by unions and machine politicians") and "called for an 'infusion of philanthropic support'." Enter Zuckerberg, whom Booker greatly admired. The mayor had learned, through his extensive network, that the young tech billionaire was contemplating making a "significant philanthropic move" in the area of education. The two men eventually connected, in the summer of 2010, at the annual Sun Valley gathering of movers and shakers hosted by retired financier Herb Allen, and, after dinner on the deck of Allen's townhouse, they went for a walk. According to Russakoff, Zuckerberg told Booker "he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make a difference and create a national model." Booker responded with his pitch, and a month later he sent the Facebook co-founder a proposal that included a six-point agenda and a request for $100 million over five years — the number chosen "largely for its size and the public attention it would draw...." Zuckerberg agreed, writes Russakoff, "with the caveat that Booker would have to match it with another $100 million from other donors."
Booker's next move was to enlist Christie's help. He knew that resistance from the teachers' union and district employees would be fierce, having earlier told the governor in a confidential report that "real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously." There was, after all, a lot at stake in who exercised control over "the prize": the school district's billion-dollar-a-year budget.