Mark Zuckerberg, wife give $120 million to Bay Area schools. To what end?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, will give $120 million to public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Newark, N.J., a similar gift drew grass-roots resistance.

Rick Wilking/REUTERS
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walks with his wife, Priscilla Chan, at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2013.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s latest gift to education – $120 million announced in Friday’s San Jose Mercury News – will be spread around Facebook’s own backyard in California’s Bay Area.

In Ravenswood, one of the districts that will benefit from the gift by Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, less than 40 percent of the largely Hispanic student population scored proficient in English language arts, the couple note in their announcement. And the science curriculum was kept afloat by volunteers in what new Superintendent Gloria Hernandez calls the “dark years,” the Palo Alto Weekly reports.

The first $5 million will go to top needs identified by leaders in Ravenswood and several other districts – computers, connectivity, and teacher training to make the most of the technology; leadership training for principals; and support for students transitioning from middle school to high school.

The money has been pledged for use during the next five years, and will be distributed through Startup: Education, a nonprofit established by the couple to improve education. An unspecified portion will support the creation of new district schools and charter schools “that give people more high quality choices for their education,” the couple writes.

It’s not Zuckerberg’s first foray into education philanthropy, and he says it won’t be his last.

Controversy still swirls around his 2010 pledge of $100 million to Newark, N.J. – matching funds to bring about systemic reforms in a chronically troubled school district. Those efforts – championed by Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker, now a US senator – have been slow to yield results and have angered many community members who feel the reforms were too top-down and who question how the money has been spent.

“A lot of it was going to consultants and for-profit organizations … and there was no public accountability,” says Michael Klonsky, who teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University in Chicago and writes about the privatization of public education.

Mr. Klonsky says he’s not informed enough about the new gift to comment specifically, but says it’s important for there to be transparency and public influence over how the gifted money is being used.

In Friday’s announcement, Zuckerberg credits the Newark efforts with bringing on 50 new principals, increasing graduation rates by 10 percent, opening new schools run by operators that have a track record of success, and creating a new teacher contract designed to reward good performance.

But Zuckerberg has critics among supporters of charter schools and other major reforms, too.

The Newark gift could have had bigger effect if done differently, and Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to have learned the right lessons in how he’s approaching this new gift, says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“The gift needs to be contingent on real restructuring,” he says.

Stronger reforms were built into a teacher contract in the District of Columbia when various philanthropies tied their giving to certain contingencies that persuaded both the district and the union to go in that direction, Mr. Hess says.

By contrast, he says, “in Newark, he wrote the check and then said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ There was no leverage created for [Superintendent] Cami Anderson, so they had to buy union acquiescence to get modest changes.”

While details of this new gift have yet to emerge, it will probably amount to “a couple pennies on the dollar per year,” for the various districts, Hess says, adding, “I don’t think this is going to lead to particularly dramatic changes.”

But whatever the controversies, cash-strapped districts are grateful for extra money.

“To transform our schools into truly 21st century learning systems we need a greater investment in financial, social and political capital,” says San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza in a statement quoted by “We are thrilled that Mark and Priscilla have stepped up to support our vision by focusing on the needs of students in San Francisco's most underserved communities."

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