'Zuckerberg had no idea what he was getting himself into' with his $100 million donation to Newark public schools

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg set into motion a bold plan to turn around Newark, New Jersey’s failing public school system.

With a hyped-up announcement on “Oprah,” he pledged to donate $US100 million to Newark, under the agreement that another $US100 million would be matched from other sources.

But the turnaround hasn’t gone as expected for a number of reasons, and journalist Dale Russakoff has tracked the five years since Zuckerberg’s donation in a new book called “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools.”

Russakoff spoke with NPR’s “Fresh Air” host, Terry Gross, about the book and the roadblocks to executing the plan as Zuckerberg had foreseen.

“Zuckerberg had no idea what he was getting himself into,” Gross summarized from Russakoff’s explanation of events in her book.

One of the major miscommunications about how his money would be spent had to do with teacher contracts. Zuckerberg wanted to be able to create more flexibility in teacher contracts to reward high-performing teachers and be able to fire teachers with poor records of student achievement.

But those types of protections are determined by New Jersey State law, and Zuckerberg couldn’t simply come in and change the rules without going through the state legislature to make the changes.

“I guess Cory Booker never made clear to him that seniority protections for the most senior teachers — the way it work is that when there’s a downsizing or a layoff, the most senior teachers are protected,” Russakoff explained on the radio show.

Zuckerberg envisioned the teacher contract reform to be a centrepiece of the reform and had intended for half of his $US100 million donation to go to working on that cause.

But instead, the opposite occurred. Chris Cerf, the New Jersey commissioner of education at the time, worked with the legislature and was able to negotiate some new accountability measures in teacher contracts. But the teachers’ union only agreed upon those measures if the seniority protections remained intact.

“The seniority protections became automatically a part of this new contract in Newark, which was supposed to be, in the words that the reformers were using, a transformational contract that would become a model for how to reform school districts all across the country, and it was not,” Russakoff said.

We reached out to Facebook to give Zuckerberg an opportunity to comment on the “Fresh Air” story, and we will update the post if we hear back.

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