The Prize

Dale Rus­sakoff
  • From the Publisher
March 28, 2016

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.

Discussion Questions