In the Fall of 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah that he would be making a generous gift to Newark, New Jersey.
As Oprah said, in her Oprah way, “One. Hundred. Million. Dollars.” would be given to Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the three began the Startup:Education Foundation.
The plan was to turn Newark into what Zuckerberg called “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation,” spent on retaining the best teachers, and creating environments that would produce successful students and one day, graduates.
Newark is a city wrought with crime. Its graduation rate is at about 67%. It needed the help, and Booker’s vision sounded promising.
Between 2010 and 2012, The New Yorker Reports “more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, [and] teacher evaluation.” Many of the consultants were being paid upwards of one thousand dollars a day.
“Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read,” Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, was quoted saying.
Today, the money is pretty much gone, and Newark has hardly become that symbol of excellence.
In 2010, Mayor Booker found a loophole in getting money to help fund Newark’s educational reform. It came in the form of philanthropic donations, which unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending. Governor Christie approved of the plan, and Booker’s job was to find the donors.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg had pledged to donate half of his fortune (like many other tech billionaires) but as The New Yorker reports, he knew new very little about urban education or philanthropy.
Booker and Zuckerberg met to discuss a vision for Newark’s future. Booker wanted to significantly reward Newark teachers who improved student performance rather than focusing on seniority and tenure. Teachers would be challenged and rewarded to do their jobs well, and students would benefit.
Zuckerberg was confident Newark and Booker were the right recipients for this huge gift (given over five years), and agreed to gift one hundred million dollars with a few stipulations:
- Booker would also have to raise one hundred million dollars. Zuckerberg’s money would release to Newark as matching dollars rolled in.
- Booker would have to replace the current superintendent with a “transformational leader.”
The reform ended up looking like this: taking low-performing public schools and closing them, turning them into charter schools and “themed” high schools. But there was no easy way to expand charters without destabilizing traditional public schools.
In the months following the gift announcement, Booker and Christie still had no superstar superintendent and no reform plan.
Zuckerberg was concerned and urged Booker to find the superintendent, even sending Booker a poster widely seen around the Facebook campus that said: “Done is better than perfect.”
Immediately, Booker appointed Cami Anderson for the job. She implemented ways to help students and improve schools (all which The New Yorker detailed), but there were roadblocks along the way, like how the students brought the issues going on in their homes with them to the classroom.
Anderson wanted to give schools more support to help students on emotional and social levels, but Newark had already been spending more money per student than most districts in the entire country; none of which was actually reaching the children it existed to help.
New contracts were being created, money was being hemorrhaged, and the the district was going broke. But interviews — like this one in Forbes — regarding the money and the future of Newark’s schools were always positive, highlighting, of course, only the good aspects of the huge monetary donation.
Anderson came up with another plan called One Newark, which sounded like it could work: Families would choose which charter or public schools they would want to send their children to. Children from the lowest-income families would get first pick. So would kids with special needs.
It all sounded great until parents and teachers realised it was only on paper. Solutions hadn’t been figured out fully. Programs hadn’t been developed. Issues like transportation had not yet been tackled. Things that were promised didn’t end up coming to fruition.
According to The New Yorker, Anderson, Booker, Zuckerberg, and Christie ” — despite millions of dollars spent on community engagement — have yet to hold tough, open conversations with the people of Newark about exactly how much money the district has, where it is going, and what students aren’t getting as a result.”
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