Reform Gone Wrong: Despite $100 Million From Facebook, Newark Schools Still Screwed Up

Infighting and a lack of transparency in decision making are hampering reform and losing the trust of the community.

Last September, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously went on the Oprah Winfrey Show to announce that he'd sent a $100 million friend request to the troubled Newark, New Jersey schools. Six months later, only $1 million of those funds has been spent and the community is bickering over how to best use the $99 million balance that's being held by the foundation that Zuckerberg started to administer the funds, Startup Education.

Controversy started right off the bat when Zuckerberg attached strings to the money, like demanding that Newark Mayor Cory Booker be given control of the city's schools. Due to abysmal academic performance and mismanagement, the 40,000 student-strong district has been under state control since 1995 and mayoral control is prohibited by New Jersey law. Governor Chris Christie went ahead and opted not to renew school superintendent Clifford Janey's contract—a new superintendent still hasn't been hired—and said Booker would play an "advisory" role to the schools.

Booker set out to match Zuckerberg's donations, raising $44 million from corporations and private donors like Goldman Sachs and the Broad Foundation. Booker's initial reluctance to be forthcoming about who was giving money created the impression that decisions about what will happen in Newark are being made under secrecy by outsiders. He then spent $1 million surveying parents thoughts on education reform, and claimed survey results indicated community support of his reforms, like closing schools and bringing more charters to the city. But plans to shutter several schools in the district and make the remaining schools share their space with charters led to enraged parents and community members storming meetings to voice their opposition.

On Tuesday, Zuckerberg announced that he and Booker have decided to give another $1 million of the money to five new public alternative high schools. The city’s school advisory board opposed the decision but state officials overruled them. Rutgers professor Junius Williams summed up community sentiment when he told, "most Newark schools will suffer cuts in teaching staff, social workers, counselors, and programs that will make schools interesting for the vast majority of Newark schoolchildren." Indeed, Zuckerberg's gift could easily close the district's $75 million budget deficit. Almost 400 district employees—teachers and other school personnel—are set to lose their jobs due to the shortfall.

What's happening in Newark a case study on school reform gone wrong. Everyone claims to be putting kids first, all while pushing their own agendas. Former school advisory board Richard Cammarieri aptly criticized the disunity and the general lack of cohesion, telling USA Today, "It's like they have somebody trying to figure out how they can screw this up the most. Everything they've done is totally tone deaf."

For their part, Booker and Zuckerberg might want to look to the example of Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was ousted by community members displeased with the steamrolling reforms of his school's chancellor Michelle Rhee. Booker nobly says he doesn't care about re-election, and if doing right by kids makes voters hate him, so be it. Given that only half of Newark's student's graduate, it's easy to think that listening to the community and actually considering their opinions will do nothing but perpetuate the status quo. On the other hand, not involving parents and other community members in a transparent education reform process ends up breeding mistrust, which ultimately only hampers progress.

Image via Flickr user CoryBooker

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