Poverty Has Become an Excuse for Poor Education In America

The following is an excerpt from  The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?  by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


Late one night in December 2009, a large black Chevy Tahoe moved slowly through some of the most violent neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey. In the back sat two of the nation’s rising political stars—the Republican governor-elect, Chris Christie, and the Democratic mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. The pair had grown friendly during Christie’s years as United States attorney in Newark in the early 2000s and remained so, even as their national parties had become polarized to the point of gridlock in Washington. Booker had invited Christie to ride with him on this night in a caravan of off-duty cops and residents who periodically patrolled the city’s busiest drug corridors. 

The caravan started out on once-vibrant Orange Street in the Central Ward, across from a boarded-up housing project so still and silent it appeared dead. Baxter Terrace was home to both white and black industrial workers in the 1940s, when factories in Newark made seemingly everything—leather, plastics, cigars, textiles, dyes, hats, gloves, beer, electrical instruments, jewelry, chemicals, military clothing. As Newark’s manufacturing collapsed, and as whites fled to the suburbs, Baxter became all black and poor, overtaken in subsequent years by violent gangs and drug dealers. 

The volunteer patrolmen turned left on Bergen Street, which led to the South Ward, Newark’s poorest and most violent. The street was punctuated with small tire and auto-body shops variously bearing Italian, Brazilian, and Spanish family names, with one gleaming exception—a small commercial development anchored by an Applebee’s and a Home Depot, Newark’s lone big box store. At almost every intersection, telephone poles bristled with signs offering cash for junk cars or for houses—“no equity, no problem.” One stretch of Bergen, a middle-class shopping district in the 1960s, was now home to Tina’s African Hair Braiding, Becky’s Beauty Salon, a preowned-furniture store, Family Dollar, Power Ministry Assembly of God, Aisha’s New Rainbow Chinese Halal Food, and a Head Start center. By far the biggest and most prosperous-looking establishment was Cotton’s Funeral Service and the adjacent Scentiment Florist. 

Driving through Newark was like touring archaeological layers of despair and hope. Downtown still had artifacts of the glory days before World War II, when Newark was among the nation’s largest cities, with one of the highest-grossing department stores in the country. The majestic, limestone Newark Museum, endowed by the store’s founder, Louis Bamberger, still presided over downtown, as did the Italian Renaissance–style Newark Public Library, built at the turn of the twentieth century. Run-down and vacant buildings now dominated the streetscapes, but five colleges and universities, including Rutgers–Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology, held out potential for a better future. And Mayor Booker was aggressively recruiting development—the first new hotels in forty years, the first supermarkets in twenty. Soon Panasonic and Prudential Insurance would be building new office towers. A Whole Foods would come later. The momentum stopped far short of Newark’s neighborhoods, however. 

The ostensible purpose of the ride-along was for Booker to show the governor-in-waiting one of his crime-fighting techniques. But Booker had another agenda. His own rise in politics had coincided with, and been fueled by, a national movement seeking radical change in urban education, leading Booker to envision an audacious agenda for Newark and for himself. He would need Christie’s help. 

The state had seized control of the city’s schools in 1995, after investigators documented pervasive corruption and patronage at the top, along with appalling neglect of students. Their conclusion was encapsulated in one stunning sentence: “Evidence shows that the longer children remain in the Newark public schools, the less likely they are to succeed academically.” Fifteen years later, after the state had compiled its own record of mismanagement, fewer than forty percent of third through eighth graders were reading or doing math at grade level. Yet in all those years, no governor had returned the reins. That meant that within weeks, Christie, upon his inauguration, would become the overlord of the Newark Public Schools and its $1 billion annual budget. 

Booker had listened carefully as Christie spoke in his campaign of his commitment to struggling cities, frequently reminding voters that he was born in Newark. The Christies had moved to the suburbs in 1967, when he was four, weeks before the eruption of cataclysmic riots that still scarred the city emotionally and physically. Booker asked his driver to detour from the caravan’s route to Christie’s childhood neighborhood, where the governor-elect said he had happy memories of taking walks with his mother, his baby brother in a stroller. The Tahoe pulled to a stop along a desolate stretch of South Orange Avenue. Its headlights illuminated a three-story brick building with gang graffiti sprayed across boarded-up windows, rising from a weedy, garbage-strewn lot. Across the street loomed dilapidated West Side High School. Almost ninety percent of its students lived in poverty, and barely half of the freshmen made it to graduation. Violence permeated children’s lives. In separate incidents the previous year, three West Side students had been shot and killed by gangs. One year before that, on a warm summer night, local members of a Central American gang known as MS-13, wielding guns, machetes, and a steak knife, had murdered three college-bound Newark youths execution-style and badly maimed a fourth. Two of the victims and the survivor were West Side graduates. 

Christie had made urban schools a prominent issue in his campaign. “We’re paying caviar prices for failure,” he’d said, referring to Newark’s schools budget, of which three-quarters came from the state. “We have to grab this system by the roots and yank it out and start over. It’s outrageous.” 

There was little debate that the district desperately needed reform. The ratio of administrators to students was almost twice the state average. Clerks made up thirty 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. 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, meaning the wrong students got grounded or rewarded. 

Most school buildings were more than eighty years old, and some were falling to pieces—literally. Two nights before first lady Michelle Obama came to Maple Avenue School, in November 2010, to publicize her Let’s Move! campaign against obesity—appearing alongside Booker, a national cochair—a massive brick lintel fell onto the front walkway. 

What happened inside many buildings was even worse. The district had four magnet schools, two of which produced debating champions and a handful of elite college prospects. But in twenty-three of its seventy-five schools, fewer than thirty percent of children from the third through the eighth grade were reading at grade level. 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. Only 12.5 percent of Newark adults were college graduates, just over a third of the statewide rate.

Newark was an extreme example of the country’s increasing economic and racial segregation. In a predominantly white state, and one of the nation’s wealthiest, ninety-five percent of Newark students were black or Latino and eighty-eight percent qualified for free or reduced- price lunches. Forty-four percent of city children lived below the poverty line — twice the national average — and seventy percent were born to single mothers. An astonishing forty percent of newborns received inadequate prenatal care or none at all, disadvantaged before drawing their first breaths.

In the back seat of the Tahoe, Booker turned to Christie and proposed that they work together to transform education in Newark. With Christie’s absolute legal authority and Booker’s mayoral bully pulpit, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, weaken tenure protections, reward and punish teachers based on their students’ test scores. It was an agenda the incumbent Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, likely never would have embraced, out of loyalty to teachers’ unions. Christie’s upset victory over Corzine, in Booker’s view, represented “a once in a lifetime chance to get the system on the right track.”

They shared a belly laugh at the prospect of confounding the political establishment with an alliance between a white, suburban Republican and a black, urban Democrat. Booker warned that they would face a brutal fight with unions and machine politicians invested in the status quo. With 7,000 people on its payroll, the school district was the biggest public employer in a city of roughly 270,000. Shaking it up, Booker said, was sure to activate the same coalition that had foiled his first mayoral bid, spreading rumors that he was gay, Jewish, a closet Republican, and a Trojan horse for white, monied outsiders. Booker could barely see in the pitch dark, but as he described all that ugliness, he got the distinct impression that Christie was salivating.

“Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark,” the governor-to-be responded. “Why not do the right thing?”

Whatever their political differences, Booker and Christie agreed completely on public education. Both viewed urban school districts as beholden to public workers’ unions and political patronage machines rather than children, and both were part of the growing national movement seeking to reinvent education. With backing from the nation’s richest philanthropists and prominent politicians in both parties — including President Barack Obama — the self-dubbed education reform movement aimed to break up the old system with entrepreneurial approaches: charter schools, business-style accountability for principals and teachers based on students’ test scores, and bonuses for top performers. There was significant public debate over the merit of these strategies. Research scientists questioned the validity of using test score data to measure teacher effectiveness. Moreover, decades of research had shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods had far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction. But reformers argued that well-run schools with the flexibility to recruit the best teachers could overcome many of the effects of poverty, broken homes, and exposure to violence.

They pointed to high-performing urban charter schools — including some in Newark — that were publicly funded but privately run, operating free of the district schools’ large bureaucracies and, in most cases, also free of unions. Although a national study at the time found that only one in five charters in the country outperformed their district counterparts on standardized tests, Booker and other reformers said emphatically, “We know what works.” They blamed vested interests for using poverty as an excuse for failure, and dismissed competing approaches as “incrementalism.” Education needed “transformational change,” they said.

Christie’s response to Booker — “Why not do the right thing?” — reflected the righteous tone of the movement. Reformers likened their cause to the civil rights movement, well aware that many of their opponents were descendants of the old civil rights establishment: urban politicians determined to protect public jobs in cities where secure employment was rare.

It seemed that every side in the education debate had its eyes on a different prize. In impoverished cities, the school district with its bloated payroll was often the employer of first and last resort. Over the years in Newark, numerous politicians had actually taken to calling the district budget “the prize.” Reformers saw in districts like Newark an opportunity to prove that systems built around unions and large public bureaucracies were themselves an obstacle to learning. At the heart of it all were the children and a question continually posed by their parents and teachers: Were the battles waged in their name really improving young lives?

Excerpted from The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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