When School Reform and Democracy Meet

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Three years ago Facebook's CEO pledged $100 million to improve Newark's schools. In this week's New Yorker, Dale Russakoff offers an enlightening and depressing portrait of how that money was spent and what it achieved. The story is a welcome corrective to the bromide that "government should be run like a business"—as though business is some unassailable fortress of morality. 

School reformers promised to clean up a bloated and corrupt school administration. But what emerges in its place is a system in which various "consultants" are paid millions to deliver minimal results. And those results are meant to be delivered on a fast-food schedule:

On a Saturday morning later that month, Booker and Cerf met privately on the Rutgers-Newark campus with twenty civic leaders who had hoped that the Zuckerberg gift would unite the city in the goal of improving the schools. Now they had serious doubts. “It’s as if you guys are going out of your way to foment the most opposition possible,” Richard Cammarieri, a former school-board member who worked for a community-development organization, told them.

Booker acknowledged the missteps, but said that he had to move quickly. He and Christie could be out of office within three years. If a Democrat defeated Christie in 2013, he or she would have the backing of the teachers’ unions and might return the district to local control. “We want to do as much as possible right away,” Booker said. “Entrenched forces are very invested in resisting choices we’re making around a one-billion-dollar budget.” Participants in the meeting, who had worked for decades in Newark, were doubtful that reforms imposed over three years would be sustainable.

The "going out of your way to foment opposition" critique sounds really familiar. As does the anti-democratic streak which seems to haunt "reformers" and classical progressives of every age. One strategy Booker might have embraced was committing to making the case for school reform to Newark voters, and voters in New Jersey at large—be that as mayor or governor—over the long term. (Newark's schools are under the control of the state.) Instead, Booker chose another strategy—one that assumes an inability to convince the people whom Booker was charged with serving. 

In any political fight worth having, one will likely tangle with "entrenched forces." The beauty of democracy is the right (and I'd say obligation) to convince a critical mass of voters that those forces are acting counter to the public interest. And if you can't do that, then it's worth examining both your cause and your approach. This is especially true of parents who have a direct interest in the education of their children. If you begin from the premise that you can not convince parents, then I doubt the wisdom of your entire plan for their children.

I say that as someone who is unconvinced that teachers should be tenured. I say that as someone who thinks Booker makes a good point about seniority. I say that as someone who thinks making teaching a lucrative profession for those who excel at it is a good idea. I wish he'd spent more time trying to convince the people of Newark of this. If the interests really are as mighty as you claim, expecting to neutralize them in three years is not very serious. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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