How Education ‘Reform’ Serves Everyone But Our Kids

It’s the quintessential tragedy of education reform today. Paychecks – not children – are the golden ticket of a movement that has been hijacked by consultants and experts with years of business experience yet none in the classroom. Bureaucrats and reformers talk a big game about closing achievement gaps, raising high school graduation rates, and improving accountability and performance mechanisms for school districts and classrooms. Yet they fail to deliver when the time comes to put visions into workable, applicable plans. Paychecks are cashed while schools are shuttered and children are left holding the textbooks, unable to read them.

For a case in point, look at Newark, New Jersey, where massive philanthropic gifts have done nothing to stem budget shortfalls, school closures and teacher layoffs. Just this week, The New Yorker released a 12-page expose on Cory Booker’s vision for Newark Public Schools. Consistently one of the most underperforming school districts in the country, Newark has been in immense need of transformational reform for years. Booker, a national advocate for school choice, sought help from an unlikely source – CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million with a requirement for matching funds to enact Booker’s plan.

On the surface, this looks like a powerful combination of philanthropic individuals seeking to improve local schools. The reality is, because these were not public funds, Booker and Newark did not have to allow for public review of priorities and spending, meaning they could and did have a free-for-all with the funds. Despite his claims to support local control of community schools, Booker abandoned his principles in favor of top-down solutions that he said couldn’t be taken captive by special interests.

In fact, Booker was more focused on media attention and marketing than analyzing the solutions being presented to the public and ensuring they could be applied effectively, efficiently and, in fact, at all. Booker had already failed on his first-term promise – crime reduction – and was making millions in speaking fees while his city crumbled. He courted Hollywood and the mainstream media, becoming a national celebrity appearing on Oprah and Morning Joe and receiving accolades from First Lady Michelle Obama while Newark parents anxiously awaited his solutions for their most valuable assets – their children.

Yes, Booker offered reforms – his plan contains many exceptional ideas, ideas that hundreds of citizens volunteered to be part of. These volunteers were never contacted. Meanwhile, $20 million alone was spent on consultants – individuals in fields like public relations, data analysis and human resources.

New schools were built, new principals were hired and new teacher contracts were entered into. Consultants, part of the “education establishment” of individuals and organizations that profit from education reform, created plans that weren’t realistic and never solidified. These plans closed schools, terminated teachers and didn’t account for how parents would transport their children to new locations or how students with special needs would have access to required services. While schools failed to show the promised gains, many of the newly hired consultants were making $1,000 per day.

Education reform is necessary for a strong American future. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has accurately stated that educational choice is the “civil rights issue of the 21st Century.” Competition and choice spur innovation and improvement. Local solutions improve local schools. Newark’s top-down “solutions,” on the other hand, did nothing to fix the district’s problems. The city’s students still suffer, families have few options, and the system is hemorrhaging great teachers because reformers focus on top-down solutions created by faceless consultants rather than the eager, ready-to-learn children in classrooms.

As Booker struggled to find a new superintendent and create a new teachers’ contract, Zuckerberg sent him a motivational slogan: “Done is better than perfect.” Choosing between “done” and “perfect” is a false choice. I encourage Zuckerberg, Booker and anyone who believes top-down solutions for local schools work to visit Central High School in Newark, where a student named Tyler wrote this poem:

We hope to live,
Live long enough to have kids
We hope to make it home every day
We hope we’re not the next target to get sprayed …
We hope never to end up in Newark’s dead pool
I hope, you hope, we all hope.

For Tyler and all children stuck in failing schools and struggling communities across the nation, we need to make THEM the real focus of future reforms. Huge infusions of cash with no input from communities simply open the door to waste and abuse, leaving students out in the cold. Quite simply, when it comes to education reform done ISN’T better than perfect. We have to get this right, and that means putting our focus back where it’s supposed to be: on our children.