Zuckerberg 2.0: Cami Anderson and Newark

Just in the nick of time, another Teach for America / Joel Klein School of Big City Reform alumnus is heading off to take the reins of a troubled city school district. (John White, a TFA/Klein alum is on his way to New Orleans.) According to the Times, Cami Anderson, all of 39 years old, “faces the monumental task of rescuing an urban school system [Newark] that has long been mired in low achievement, high turnover and a culture of failure, despite decades of state intervention.”  Says the WSJ, Anderson “will attempt to reform the largest and one of the most troubled public school systems in the state.”

She has her work cut out for her.

For an idea of how long Newark has been struggling, see David Skinner’s 2006 story in Ed Next. The district was taken over by the State of New Jersey in 1995. (I do hope Anderson considers a new motto for the district: I’m not sure how old it is, but “Changing hearts and minds to value education” does not quite convey a sense of optimism about the future.)

The Newark job should be somewhat lighter thanks to some serious money from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, with great fanfare, promised $100 million to the district last fall.  But the money seems to come – and it’s unclear whether any has come – with some strings and some questions, including how to leverage it if and when it arrives.  (One major problem for Anderson will be a $75 million gap in the district’s current $970 million budget. According to the Star-Ledger, the district is considering laying off nearly 400 employees, including 150 teachers – and that could be Anderson’s war.) Also, according to the Journal, the 26-year-old  billionaire said his money would come conditioned on Newark raising an equal amount.  Though Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is responsible for hooking Zuckerberg, has no legal authority over Newark’s schools, he acts like an education mayor and has raised $43 million of the required matching dollars.  And according to some folks at ZDnet, Zuckerberg established a foundation, Startup: Education, (which seems to reside, naturally, only on Facebook, one of the more ungainly venues for dispatching coherent information), which “has been stocked with Facebook shares. It will sell those as needed to raise cash, which will then be used for educational initiatives. Booker’s staff will distribute the funds with guidance `from the community.’”

But Booker is already facing some problems on the community front – and the appointment of Cami Anderson, once an adviser to Booker, might not help.

In March Booker devoted half of his hour-long State of the City address (his fifth) to education, saying “More than anything, we must do better for our children’s education…  We know that there will never be a great Newark unless there is a great public school system for our city.” But there was already grumbling in the community over all the private money and where it was going.  There were picketers outside the Performing Arts Center where he delivered his speech and a local NAACP president and former teacher told the Star-Ledger that,

The stakeholders in education need to give approval of reforms…. The governor and the mayor do not have a right to make plans for the people.

Needless to say, there are some obvious similarities here to Washington, DC, where Michelle Rhee, another TFA alumnus who is also white and an outsider and an ally of a once-popular African-American mayor, and who got thrown out by the community.  More than 50 percent of Newark’s population is African-American. (Ironically, Anderson will replace Clifford Janey, an African American, whose Newark schools contract was not renewed and who had been fired by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty – before he hired Rhee.)

The Times quotes Derrell Bradford, executive director of E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone), an advocacy group that supports school choice, saying,

Newark, like Baltimore and Detroit, is highly insular and extraordinarily distrustful of outsiders…. There is a very tight cultural and political narrative that exists in these cities, and if you did not spend your life reading and writing that narrative, you have to prove that you understand its significance.

Anderson has some serious creds, having managed Joel Klein’s initiative aimed at creating schools for New York City’s most challenging students. And she gets kudos from Randi Weingarten, who worked with her while Weingarten headed up the City’s teachers union. “Initially it was a bumpy start, but then we actually worked together fairly decently,” Weingarten tells the Journal.

Still, I would advise Anderson not to pose for the cover of Time holding a broom.

–Peter Meyer

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