Russakoff pulls readers in with richly drawn real-world characters. The Cory Booker she portrays is a “politician of the future.” (The Democrat has since taken office as a U.S. Senator.) He shines on the Sundance Channel documentary show Brick City and made headlines rescuing a neighbor from a burning building—an act he immediately shared on Twitter. On an episode of her show after the Oprah announcement, Ellen DeGeneres hands him a Superman costume and calls him “Your Excellency.” He’s spent so much time networking on social media, visiting other cities, and appearing on TV shows that the writer Amiri Baraka, according to Russakoff, dubbed him “The Virtual One.”
Booker may have charmed the don of Earth’s most traversed virtual world, but Russakoff’s reporting remains balanced. She gained intimate access to many of the powerful individuals involved in the Newark initiative and factored in their perspectives along with the stories of teachers, principals, parents, and students.
The politicians had monumental hopes. Facing poor outcomes, complacency, and bureaucratic clutter, Booker, who didn’t attend Newark’s public schools, promised that the city would witness “transformative,” not “incremental,” reform. He also pledged that this work would be “the people’s project.” Instead of starting with the input of teachers, parents, and students, they hired Cami Anderson, a white woman who had the reputation of ‘not playing well in the sandbox with others.” Christie appointed as his education commissioner Christopher Cerf, the founder of the consulting firm Global Education Advisors and the former self-styled “chief of transformation” who helped spearhead former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s redesign of the district. “Change has casualties,” Cerf said to a group of community and business leaders. The key, he told school investors on another occasion, was that, “you have to override political infrastructure.”
For the Christie administration, overriding the infrastructure involved hiring waves of for-profit education consultants shortly after the Oprah announcement—including a $3 million contract for Cerf’s old firm. Russakoff reported that a total of $21 million of the $200 million donation ended up going to “technocrats” who commuted from Manhattan with high salaries amounting to as much as $1,000 a day. These consultants were skilled at marketing reform efforts, developing systems for evaluating teachers, designing data systems, and reorganizing bureaucratic hierarchies. They didn’t know the community or interact with students in person, but, according to Russakoff’s account, were fluent in education-reform jargon. In a poor, predominantly black and Latino district, their whiteness, high salaries, and talk of “moving the needle” created tension not only with the on-the-ground employees they were tasked with motivating but also the school board and the union.