Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark public schools failed miserably -- here's where it went wrong

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In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $US100 million to Newark, New Jersey’s failing public-school system with the intention of turning around the schools in five years.

The goals Zuckerberg set out to achieve — to enact a number of reforms that would make Newark a model city for education reform — are widely seen as a failure, journalist Dale Russakoff told Business Insider.

So where exactly did that $US100 million go if the turnaround was a failure?

Russakoff mapped the money trail in her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools,” which tracked the five years since Zuckerberg’s donation.

The $US100 million from Zuckerberg actually became $US200 million under the agreement other sources would match his contribution. Here’s where that money went:

  1. Labour and contract costs: $US89.2 million
  2. Charter schools: $US57.6 million
  3. Consultants: $US21 million
  4. Various local initiatives: $US24.6 million

The total committed funds comes to less than $US200 million as of January 2015 as some funding decisions are still pending.

One of the biggest failures in Zuckerberg’s plan to reform Newark schools was the renegotiated teachers’ contracts.

Zuckerberg envisioned the teacher contract reform to be a centrepiece of the reform and contributed $US50 million – half of his total donation – to go to working on that cause.

Zuckerberg wanted to be able to create more flexibility in teacher contracts to reward high-performing teachers and to fire teachers with poor records of student achievement.

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

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 in an interview with NPR.

The second biggest piece of Zuckerberg’s donation – $US25 million – went to charter schools in Newark. For students who were able to attend one of the excellent charter schools in Newark, this was certainly beneficial.

But the expansion of charter’s in Newark also sent the city into upheaval due to the implementation of the plan. Essentially, schools were consolidated and rearranged to downsize districts.

It was done quickly, and without input from parents or local administrators who could have provided guidance on how the changes would play out among the community.

Ultimately, it was a massive change from the old system parents were used to.

Rather than being designated a school close by the child’s residence, parents had to go online and chose the school they wanted. An algorithm eventually decided the school district a student would attend.

This was a big change for a school system where most kids walked to school. Further, Russakoff explained, it could put students in dangerous situations.

“When a school is closed, children had to walk through very dangerous territory, sometimes through gang territory, through drug dealing neighbourhoods,” Russakoff told NPR. “And none of that was kind of vetted in advance to see what can we do for these kids to make sure they’re safe.”

Finally, $US20 million of Zuckerberg’s donation went to consultants who took care of management of the projects. While not technically a failure, this contributed to the poor optics of the plan.

Consultants were making $US1000 a day while the local teachers and administrators did not see any of the additional funds in merit pay that they were promised.

We reached out to Facebook to give Zuckerberg an opportunity to comment, and we will update the post if we hear back.

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