The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

by Dale Russakoff

As serialized in the New Yorker, a roiling, behind-the-scenes look at the high-pressure race to turn around Newark’s failing schools, with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Cory Booker in eyebrow-raising leading roles

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547840055
  • ISBN-10: 0547840055
  • Pages: 256
  • Publication Date: 09/08/2015
  • Carton Quantity: 12

Also available in:

About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    A New York Times Bestseller 



    Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Christie, and Cory Booker were ready to reform our failing schools. They got an education. 


    When Mark Zuckerberg announced to a cheering Oprah audience his $100 million pledge to transform the downtrodden schools of Newark, New Jersey, then mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie were beside him, vowing to help make Newark “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” But their plans soon ran into the city’s seasoned education players, fierce protectors of their billion-dollar-a-year system. It’s a prize that, for generations, has enriched seemingly everyone, except Newark’s children.  


    Dale Russakoff delivers a riveting drama of our times, encompassing the rise of celebrity politics, big philanthropy, extreme economic inequality, the charter school movement, and the struggles and triumphs of schools in one of the nation’s poorest cities. As Cory Booker navigates between his status as “rock star mayor” on Oprah’s stage and object of considerable distrust at home, the tumultuous changes planned by reformers and their highly paid consultants spark a fiery grass-roots opposition stoked by local politicians and union leaders.  The growth of charters forces the hand of Newark’s school superintendent Cami Anderson, who closes, consolidates, or redesigns more than a third of the city’s schools—a scenario on the horizon for many urban districts across America.  

    Russakoff provides a close-up view of twenty-six-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and his wife as they decide to give the immense sum of money to Newark and then experience an education of their own amid the fallout of the reforms. Most moving are Russakoff’s portraits from inside classrooms, as homegrown teachers and principals battle heroically to reach students damaged by extreme poverty and violence.  


    The Prize is an absorbing portrait of a titanic struggle, indispensable for anyone who cares about the future of public education and the nation’s children. 




  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    The Pact 

    December 2009–July 2010


    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 issuein 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 at...

  • Reviews

    A New York Times Bestseller 


    “A brilliantly reported behind-the-scenes account of one city’s attempt to right its failing public schools. . . .Russakoff maintains a cleareyed distance, her observations penetratingly honest and incisive to what she sees and what she hears. I suspect some may have regretted letting Russakoff in. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide. . . . THE PRIZE is paradoxically a sobering yet exhilarating tale. For alongside the stories of those calling the shots, Russakoff tells the stories of those most profoundly affected by their decisions: teachers, students and their parents. . . . I repeatedly found myself writing in the margins, ‘Wow,’ either because of the heroic efforts by teachers and staffers or because of the obstacles facing their students. . . . THE PRIZE may well be one of the most important books on education to come along in years.”  

    —Alex Kotlowitz, New York Times Book Review

    “A stunning account of efforts by wealthy outsiders and ambitious politicians to fix Newark's failing public schools. Veteran journalist Dale Russakoff's narrative is rich with details and anecdotes that showcase the quality of her writing and bring Newark to life for people who have never lived or visited there….The story likely will unnerve educators, reformers, taxpayers, politicians, parents and students anywhere." 

    —Chicago Tribune 


    "if you read Russakoff’s account and find your beliefs vindicated, you’re not trying hard enough." 

    The Seventy Four 


    “Washington Post reporter Russakoff’s fascinating study of the struggle to reform the Newark school system reveals the inner workings of a wide range of systemic and grassroots problems (charter schools, testing, accountability, private donors) plaguing education reform today… Russakoff’s eagle-eyed view of the current state of the public education system in Newark and the United States is one of the finest education surveys in recent memory.” 

    Publishers Weekly, STARRED 


    "This is of one the most disturbing and powerful books I've read in years. The point of this story is not that the well intentioned Mark Zuckerberg and his wife gave $100 million to help those less fortunate. The point is they gave it to the wrong people. This deeply researched story left me cheering for teachers, crying for schoolchildren, and raging at politicians. With The Prize, Dale Russakoff demonstrates why she is one of the great nonfiction voices of our time." 

    James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird 


    "Dale Russakoff managed to get amazing access to the inside story of Mark Zuckerberg’s giant gift to Newark’s schools. And she shows how it all fell apart, derailed and compromised by arrogant reformers, ambitious politicians, and short-sighted special interests. An essential history of the modern education-reform movement, both infuriating and inspiring." 

    Paul Tough, author of  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character 


    "Dale Russakoff, one of America’s great journalists, illuminates one of the country’s great problems—the failure of inner city schools—with on-the-ground reporting that extends from the governor’s office and fancy philanthropies down (or up) to the small miracles performed every day by dedicated Newark classroom teachers.  Defenders of charter schools and district schools will find not the usual talking points and platitudes, but hard truths contained in Russakoff’s brilliant blend of skeptical and compassionate reportage." 

    Jonathan Alter, author of  The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies


    "With The Prize Dale Russakoff has brilliantly rendered the hopes, complexities, pitfalls, and flaws of the efforts to reform American education. This is not simply the compelling story of a single conflict-ridden school system, it is a metaphor for the failing institutions that have betrayed an entire generation of American children." 

    —Jelani Cobb, author of  To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic

    "The Prize is a riveting cautionary tale. Despite the best intentions of philanthropists and politicians, big money and big data will not save urban education, as long as reform efforts are undemocratic and overlook the realities of poor children's lives. With her deep ties to Newark, only Dale Russakoff could have told this poignant story. The Prize is essential reading for anyone who cares about how to give hope to America's most vulnerable kids." 

    Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars

    "The fight for, or over, the children of Newark might have been “merely” an important story about the future of public education in America, but in Russakoff’s accomplished hands—and with a cast of characters including Chris Christie, Cory Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg—it has become a Shakespearean spectacle of cross-purposes: ambition, altruism, and just about any human drive that invites an equal and opposite reaction." 

    —Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home