How Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark schools turned into a political mess

Remember in 2010 when Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg agreed to donate $US100 million of matching funds to Newark schools?

A new book called “The Prize” by long-time Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff documents how that all went down.

In a word: badly.

The good news: Newark schools have greatly improved since Zuck got involved. Graduation rates are way up, from 56% in 2011 to almost 69% in 2014. With the money, new charter schools were launched, a new (and controversial) superintendent was hired, new teachers and principals were hired, and a refreshed curriculum was established.

But “The Prize” documents the down-and-dirty side of that generous donation.

A glowing review of the book in The New York Times by Alex Kotlowitz describes:

Initial funds go to a bevy of consultants, most of them white, most of them well connected, some of whom are getting paid $US1,000 a day. One educator labels them the “school failure industry.” Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a top-down effort, with politicians and the well-to-do setting the agenda. When Booker sets up a local foundation to handle Zuckerberg’s gift, the seats on the board go only to donors of at least $US5 million. …

Zuckerberg, a newcomer to philanthropy, seems frustrated by the inability to negotiate a union contract that would quickly raise the salaries of promising young teachers and pay substantial merit bonuses for high performers.

There is a happy ending. Zuckerberg has learned his lessons and is trying again.

He did eventually get the teacher contract in Newark that he wanted, one that rewards good performance.

And, last year, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced a gift of $US120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the Bay Area.

This time, Zuck promised that he wasn’t going to let the politicians run the show. His new grant process would be based on “listening to the needs of local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students that others miss,” he wrote when he announced the grant in the Mercury News.

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