Zuckerberg's $100 million for Newark, N.J., schools stirs controversy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg intends his $100 million gift to boost student achievement in Newark schools. It's a vote of confidence, too, in Mayor Cory Booker. Do charter schools and merit pay lie ahead?

George Burns/Harpo Productions, Inc./AP
Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, second from left, poses with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (l.), Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker (second from r.) and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, during a live broadcast of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' on Friday, in Chicago. Zuckerberg pledged to set up a foundation to donate $100 million to Newark's schools over the next five years.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is teaming up with Newark Mayor Cory Booker to try to boost achievement in the New Jersey city’s troubled schools – and shine a national spotlight on potential models for education reform.

Mr. Zuckerberg made his debut Friday as the latest high-profile education philanthropist by announcing a gift of $100 million to the Newark schools on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The challenge grant is to be matched by additional fundraising and distributed over the next five years by his new foundation, Startup: Education.

Zuckerberg has been contemplating making a gift to education and was inspired by Mayor Booker’s vision for Newark when the two met at a conference this summer.

“School districts need more autonomy and clearer leadership so they can be managed more like startups than like government bureaucracies,” he wrote on his blog Friday. “Like any startup, the key to making this work is finding great leaders and the right market that's ready for change.”

Newark’s schools have been under state control because of a dismal record, including a graduation rate hovering just above 50 percent.

But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s move Friday to give the mayor significant authority to implement a comprehensive plan for the school district is stirring up some controversy in Newark, which is transitioning back to local control of schools and does not have an official system of mayoral control as do cities such as New York and Washington.

Both Booker, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, support reforms such as tying teacher pay in part to students’ academic improvement and expanding school choice through public charter schools.

School-choice advocate Derrell Bradford says Newark already spends more than $20,000 a year for each of its 40,000 students, but it’s stuck in a status quo that doesn’t serve kids well. “[The gift] is huge leverage for the mayor to get things done rapidly,” says Mr. Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone in Newark, which supports charters and vouchers for private school.

Booker, Christie, and now Zuckerberg are on what Mr. Bradford sees as the right side of the “culture war” of education reform – people “who believe in competition” and achieving measured goals. The other side, he says, is “a baby boomer, excuse-laden culture ... that says input is all that matters and results are irrelevant.”

But others say the publicity surrounding the gift is misleading. The district receives more money per student based on a formula weighted to address the needs of low-income students, disabled students, and English-language learners, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which advocates for high-needs students in New Jersey. The district, he says, has made dramatic improvements in early education and narrowing racial achievement gaps.

He also questions some of the solutions that reformers tout. “This notion that you hear that if we close the district-run schools and create charter schools is somehow going to magically bring about more improvement for all kids across the district is nonsense,” he says. There are good and bad charters in the city, just as there are good and bad regular schools, he says.

Nationally, there have been some high-profile successes in charter schools, and Oprah promoted six such charter networks on her show earlier this week with $1 million grants. But studies show mixed results overall. As for merit pay, another reform idea that’s gaining popularity and may figure into Booker’s plans: This week the most rigorous study yet of merit pay for teachers found that large pay incentives did not yield consistent or lasting gains in student test scores.

Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso told The Wall Street Journal recently that he’s concerned that the mayor has never come to talk to him about how to resolve education problems. In a written statement Friday, union officials said they “look forward to working with Mark Zuckerberg and the entire Newark community to make this city’s schools a national model for urban education.”

Mayor Booker emphasized in a conference call with reporters that the blame game and political divisions need to stop, and said he plans to meet with community stakeholders to develop a shared plan for bringing the schools up to a new standard. He said it’s important to support and empower teachers as well as hold them and others accountable for results, and that he has no bias toward charter or district-run schools, but in either category wants to “nurture schools of excellence.”

“Failure cannot be tolerated,” Booker said. “In order for us to achieve the bold new paradigm for districtwide achievement ... this has to be a process of inclusion.... We must come together and assert our community standards.... Parents, at the end of the day, want their children to succeed. Whoever the provider is, we’re looking to make schools that work and serve our children’s genius.”

Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to work full time on Facebook and became a billionaire, is portrayed in a nonflattering way in “The Social Network,” a movie opening next week. In a conference call Friday, he and Booker responded to skeptics’ comments that he was making the donation to burnish his image. Zuckerberg had actually considered making the donation anonymously or at another time, they said, but he agreed to go forward because Booker didn’t want delays or additional questions raised by an anonymous gift.

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