Facebook Founder’s $100 Million Gift to Newark Schools Raises Hopes, Concerns

Published October 11, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg says he hopes a $100 million grant to the Newark, New Jersey public school system will galvanize educational philanthropy and spur reform in the troubled urban district. The Facebook founder and CEO announced his historic grant on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a media frenzy followed.

Joining Zuckerberg on Winfrey’s nationally syndicated daytime television program were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D). Christie and Booker have taken strong, bipartisan stands against the educational status quo and have made education reform a top priority for their administrations—a fact Zuckerberg cited as crucial in making the decision to focus his philanthropy on Newark’s struggling schools.

Matching Funds Promised
As a condition of the grant, Booker must raise another $100 million in matching funds. Booker pledged on the Winfrey show to raise an additional $150 million for the effort.

“Every child deserves a great education and right now that’s not happening,” Zuckerberg told Winfrey. When Winfrey asked why he chose Newark, Zuckerberg replied, “Newark is really just ’cause I believe in these guys,” pointing to Booker and Christie.

“School districts need more autonomy and clearer leadership so they can be managed more like startups than like government bureaucracies,” Zuckerberg said in a statement after the September 24 broadcast. “Like any startup, the key to making this work is finding great leaders and the right market that’s ready for change.”

Newark Students Lag
The Newark Public School system, the largest in New Jersey, has long been the focus of state and local reformers, but with little to show for the effort.

Newark schools spend approximately $22,000 per student, the highest cost-per-pupil in the state, 47 percent above the state average (in a state already near the top of the nation in spending). The average teacher salary in Newark is $80,000 per year. The average teacher salary in the United States was $53,900 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite the spending, Newark’s public school test scores and graduation rates remain among the lowest in New Jersey. Only about 40 percent of Newark third graders read and write at grade level, and 46 percent of the district’s 40,000 public school students fail to graduate high school. Only 20 percent go on to four-year colleges. More than 85 percent of the Newark students who attend community colleges need remedial help in math and English, according to the state department of education.

Shift in Governance
Although all the details behind Zuckerberg’s $100 million challenge grant are not public, the Facebook founder made it clear he expects Booker and Christie to be the driving forces behind the reform effort in Newark.

Local and state cooperation would represent a major shift after nearly 15 years of state control of the Newark school system. Christie would have the last word, but the governor has said hewould delegate greater authority to Booker in the search for a new school superintendent and in working with Newark parents to develop a plan to reform the failing school system. The legislature would also need to sign off on mayoral control.

“Newark public schools are a disaster in need of major overhaul and reform,” said Matt Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. “Despite having per-pupil spending and teacher salaries well above the state and national averages—measures, I might add, that the education establishment continually points to as key indicators of achieving success—a majority of Newark students are not receiving an education that will adequately prepare them to be successful in life.”

‘An Amazing Opportunity’
Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, says he’s optimistic the infusion of private funds under the bipartisan leadership of a reform-minded governor and mayor could bring about the kind of systemic change necessary for turning around a failing public school system.

“This is an amazing opportunity to bring about systemic change and reform brought about by a remarkable gesture of personal philanthropy,” said Enlow. “I hope that this chance will not be swallowed up by the system that got the children of Newark in this mess in the first place.”

Enlow says strong leadership and great resolve are necessary to change a system that has been so broken for so long.

“Hopefully, under Mayor Booker and Gov. Christie’s leadership, real change and reform can begin to happen in Newark,” said Enlow. “One thing is for certain: Control must be moved away from the educrats and given back to parents.”

Accountability Cited as Need

Derrell Bradford, executive director of New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone and a veteran of the school reform movement, said he hopes more parental choice will be a part of the plan for reform.

“I think that some type of seed voucher program needs to be included,” said Bradford.

“Look, Newark is already flush with cash,” Bradford noted. “This amazing instance of personal philanthropy is less about resources and more an experiment on governmental change: Can private capital make a public system more accountable?”

“Only time will tell,” he added, “but I have great faith in the mayor’s and governor’s vision for Newark.”

Both Christie and Booker’s offices have declined to comment on the specifics of the plan to reform the Newark School System. But when asked about the grant on MSNBC, Booker said he expected the city’s residents to rise to the occasion.

“Money does not make a difference unless it is matched with commitment,” said Booker. “People make a difference. Newark has an opportunity to step up for education and start to set high levels of accountability.”

Andrew LeFevre ([email protected]) is president and CEO of the Arizona Choice in Education Foundation.