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One of the salutary developments in the education debate over the past decade is that most Americans now believe that teachers’ unions are part of the problem and not part of the solution. It’s now very clear that union efforts to preserve tenure and last-in, first-out methods of hiring and firing mean that far too many public schools are managed on the behalf of burned-out wrecks grimly holding on until their defined-benefit pensions vest.

There are several reasons why unions aren’t part of the intellectual arguments over education anymore. They’re headed by leaders who aren’t interested in ideas. Randi Weingarten, Albert Shanker’s heir at the American Federation of Teachers, may be a fine manager, but makes no pretense at being an intellectual. And if you can quote any sentence by whoever heads the National Education Association this week—well, my friend, you need to step outside and start breathing fresh air.

But the bipartisan donors who funded the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” also deserve credit. The unusual alliance of Jeff Skoll, a liberal entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Philip Anschutz, a conservative entrepreneur and philanthropist, made that film. According to the Waiting for "Superman" website, other donors helping to support filming and distribution include the Broad. Ford, Gates, and Walton Family foundations. These donors deserve credit for producing a film that changed people’s minds.

So today’s education reformer, while rejecting vouchers, would favor more charters and weaker unions. But as Dale Russakoff shows in this New Yorker article, excerpted from a book in progress, shows how hard it is to change entrenched education interests.

Like most inner cities, Newark’s schools were bad and crumbling. In 1994, says Russakoff, investigators for the New Jersey Department of Education found that the Newark school district “was renting an elementary school infested with rats and containing asbestos and high levels of lead paint.” The school system was about to buy the building, assessed at $120,000, for $2.7 million, until they found the building was “owned, through a sham company, by two school principals prominent in Italian-American politics.” (The principals were indicted and acquitted.) In 2010, two days before First Lady Michelle Obama visited Maple Avenue School, a “massive brick lintel” at the school smashed to the ground.

When Cory Booker became mayor of Newark, he raised $20 million for charter schools from a variety of sources, including Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and the Gates, Walton Family, Fisher, and Robertson foundations. (This is not the Robertson Foundation once associated with Princeton, but a different organization.) But he decided he needed more donor dollars to institute radical change, and in 2010 persuaded Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, as his first major gift, to give $100 million to the Newark schools, which would be matched by other donors. The gift was announced on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Where did the $200 million go? For the first two years, $20 million was spent on “consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation.” Many of these consultants were earning a thousand dollars a day.

Because Newark schools were under state control, Booker had to work with New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Together, they selected as superintendent Cami Anderson, the first white person to be Newark school superintendent since 1973. (Anderson is married to an African-American and has a son named after Frederick Douglass.)

Anderson proposed slashing teacher payrolls and encouraging charter schools. After a year’s negotiation, the Newark Teachers Union agreed in 2012 to allow merit pay for new hires—provided that their members got raises that were blocked for two years. The bill for the raises was $31 million. “Zuckerberg covered the expense,” Russakoff writes, “knowing that other investors would find the concession unpalatable.” Anderson also persuaded donors to set aside $40 million ”for a principals’ contract and other labor expenses.”

So this means that foundations spent $71 million in Newark just to keep labor unions happy. But the reduction in public schools due in part to the growth of charter schools meant that 350 veteran teachers were no longer needed. Some of these veterans were making $94,000 a year, and they could force new teachers out of the system if last-in, first-out rules applied. So Anderson kept the 350 veterans on “in support roles” and paid their salaries in full, a two-year cost of $50 million, which does not appear to have been. paid for by foundations. However, in March 2013 200 support staff were fired, saving the Newark schools $18 million.

The question one asks from Russakoff’s fine piece is this: Did any of Zuckerberg’s $100 million actually help children do better in school? As we’ve seen, much of it went to tenured teachers. Russakoff also makes a sound point where she writes that the donors to Newark school reform have not disclosed “how much of the philanthropy went to consultants who came from the inner circle of the school-reform movement.”

Russakoff noted that Mark Zuckerberg in December 2013 donated 18 million shares of Facebook worth $940 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, following a $500 million donation in 2012, but that there’s no evidence that Zuckerberg has any interest in education reform. If Zuckerberg is no longer interested in education reform, that’s understandable, given the frustrating lack of change in Newark’s schools.

The Newark episode shows once again that well-intentioned outsiders face considerable challenges when trying to change inner-city schools, particularly ones with powerful unions and entrenched central offices. Funders should ask themselves: Do they want to use their grants to battle teachers’ unions, or would it be better to step around the barricades and give money to private voucher programs and struggling private schools?


1 thought on “A $100-million-dollar lesson in education reform”

  1. Martin Morse Wooster says:

    Newark mayor Ras Baraka commented on the Newark school debacle in a profile of Mark Zuckerberg that appeared in the NEW YORKER in September 2018. Baraka said the plan failed because “You can’t just cobble up a bunch of money and drop it it the middle of the street and say, ‘This is going to fix everything.’

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