“Where did the money go? Where did the money go?" That’s what a crowd of several hundred parents and union activists were shouting at the Newark school board meeting in 2011, according to a recent New Yorker article. They wanted to know why, after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had dropped $100 million on the failing school district, things had not changed. Students were still performing abysmally, schools were still overrun by violence. Many classrooms didn’t even have textbooks. The article suggests that the money went to highly paid consultants in sweetheart deals with then-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (The Newark schools are under state control.)
But did you need 11,000 words to figure out why Zuckerberg’s gift didn’t change things? The answer is easy. If you give $100 million dollars to a system that already misuses a billion dollars a year, the money won’t have much of an effect. It’s like giving the U.S. Postal Service a few million bucks and complaining that your mail delivery is not improving. No kidding!
And $100 million is a drop in the bucket. As Bill Gates told the Wall Street Journal about his own donation of $100 million to change New York City’s schools, "It's worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that's ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it's truly a rounding error."
It may be possible to change the public system a little bit. During her tenure as Washington, DC’s school superintendent, Michelle Rhee orchestrated a multimillion dollar gift from the Walton Foundation and the Broad Foundation, among others, to reward high-performing teachers with raises, thereby undermining the union’s system of seniority pay. In fact, the donors said that if Rhee did not stay in her position, they would take back their money.
It is clear that Michelle Rhee was able to shake things up in Washington in a way that Cory Booker and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson have yet to do with the Zuckerberg funds. One reason for that may be that Rhee was already an established figure who knew how she wanted to use the money before it was given. It’s also true that Eli Broad and the other donors are pretty savvy when it comes to giving in education. They have been at this for a long time. They knew it would be necessary to undermine the unions in order to change the situation.
For those like Zuckerberg, who are newer to this field, though, they might be better off trying some sure things. Have $100 million burning a hole in your pocket? Give it to private school scholarship funds. Give it to the KIPP schools or Harlem Success. Or Teach for America.
Alas, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. Last week, he announced a gift of $120 million to the San Francisco public schools. Good luck with that.