In 2010, Facebook’s billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg joined Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker on the Oprah Winfrey show with great fanfare. The purpose of their appearance was to announce that Zuckerberg was contributing $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school system.
There was a time when private donations to public schools would have been unheard of. Schools were well funded with government money and were accountable only to the people for their actions. That history is now passé, as rich individuals and corporations have snatched seats at a table where they do not belong. Charter schools have been foisted upon black and brown children across the country, and in the process fired thousands of black teachers, closed schools, and stolen resources from public education while simultaneously making profits for hedge fund chieftains.
This disastrous plan has gathered steam with Republican and Democratic politicians alike who happily jump on the bandwagon and the big money that comes with it. A Republican president may use the slogan No Child Left Behind and a Democrat may say Race to the Top, but the end results are equally disastrous.
The Newark scheme has been in the news lately because the people of Newark, through grass roots mobilization and the ballot box, said thanks but no thanks to Zuckerberg and his big money. Newark was vulnerable to the charter school confidence game for two reasons. First, its low performing school system was taken over by the state of New Jersey in 1995 and secondly, they had the misfortune of having Cory Booker as their mayor.
Booker’s rise to the city council, mayoralty and now United States senate is a tale for the ages. He successfully marketed himself to rich people and raised huge amounts of money for his campaigns. He might have been the first black president instead of Barack Obama, because as the New Yorker magazine recently pointed out, his wealthy benefactors loved him that much.
“They let Cory into their boardrooms and offices, introduced him to people they worked with in hedge funds. As young finance people, they looked at a guy like Cory at this stage as if they were buying Google at seventy-five dollars a share. They were talking about him being the first black president before he even got elected to the city council, and they all wanted to be a part of that ride.”
The ambitious Booker made a name for himself and became a prodigious fundraiser as one of the first black politicians to support the school voucher movement. He was backed by the Bradley foundation and Walmart’s Walton family and became the celebrity up and coming Democrat. Of course he would ally himself with Zuckerberg and Republican governor Chris Christie in the scheme to deliver the final coup de grace to public education in Newark.
The New Yorker story tells the sordid tale of how the $100 million was spent against the wishes of Newark residents. The One Newark privatization scheme was classic, consisting of pay for dubious measures of performance, layoffs of experienced teachers and a school closing plan. The New Yorker exposé gives interesting detail but misses the point. The very purpose of school privatization is to close schools and give teachers no more job security than fast food workers or Walmart greeters. Newark school privatization succeeded in the way its creators wanted all along.
But Newark was having none of it. An unpopular superintendent, Cami Anderson, succeeded in garnering opposition a la the infamous Michelle Rhee. Anderson even tried to fire principals who publicly opposed her plans. The people of Newark made their disgust loud and clear on May 13, when they elected city councilman and former public school principal Ras Baraka as their new mayor. His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, was backed by Booker’s Wall Street friends and was himself the founder of a charter school. The big money fund raising brought him a long way from early polling to make a competitive race, but campaign cash and corporate media fawning couldn’t put lipstick on the discredited pig.
Newark schools are still under state control and it isn’t likely that the Republican governor will loosen the reins. Yet Baraka’s victory is an important one in the effort to stop the charter school catastrophe. The next billionaire who wants to earn what he thinks are good public relations points may think twice before embarking on what may be an expensive boondoggle if the people make clear that they want democracy and not rule by the rich.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.com.