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Zuckerberg's $100 Million for Newark...Better Luck Next Time

Whoops. The only condition Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg attached to his $100 million gift to Newark Public Schools was that Governor Chris Christie give control of the schools to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. And now it appears Christie lacks the statutory authority to do so.

Times being what they are, Zuckerberg announced the gift on Oprah. When she asked, "Why Newark?" he said he believed that Christie and Booker could make Newark a "symbol of educational excellence."

Zuckerberg can take solace. The likelihood that his $100 million was going to make any difference was already negligible. Why? Well, first off, astonishingly enough, in the scheme of school spending it just wasn't that much. Newark is spending $940 million this year. They are already spending more than $22,000 per pupil and yet graduate less than half their students. Even including the one-to-one match that Zuckerberg required, the gift will yield $50 million a year for four years. That's just over five cents on the dollar. It's hardly enough to transform a district that has already been subject to vast new outlays and court-mandated reforms for four decades.

Hell, Newark spent $990 million last year--so the Zuckerberg gift and attendant match will simply take the district back to its 2009-10 funding level. I don't know about you, but I don't think Newark circa 2009 was much of a showpiece. In fact, Newark is spending $113 million this year just on health care and benefits. So, the total gift will help cover maybe forty percent of the district's benefits costs this year. Whoopee.

What did Zuckerberg get wrong? A couple things. The greatest leverage that a donor has is not the money but the ability to use the money to leverage hard-to-win changes. It's hard for even far-seeing union leaders to convince veteran union members to accept reforms to evaluation, tenure, or pay policies. It's much easier if they can tell their members that such changes are what it will take to unlock new funds. District leadership reluctant to close half-empty facilities, overhaul operations, or push for cuts in benefits will find its path somewhat easier if such measures will open doors for new funding. As in any negotiation, one's leverage is greatest before signing on the dotted line. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg missed an important opportunity to provide political cover to Booker and Christie, or to ensure that his money would be well spent. Because, like Walter Annenberg learned more than a decade ago, the hope that even seemingly large infusions of cash will themselves make a difference in urban school systems is a pipe dream. Even $100 million, in Jay Greene's memorable phrase, amounts to little more than a bucket thrown into the sea.

Is it possible the money could make a real difference, even absent leverage? Sure. As I noted in With the Best of Intentions several years ago, the amount of discretionary money that a superintendent controls is quite small. Fifty million could make a big difference, if spent smart. Unfortunately, the early signals on this count aren't encouraging. Booker is promising to solicit ideas from the community, seems none too eager to suggest tough measures, and Zuckerberg didn't push or demand tough medicine. This sounds to me like a formula for more tepid measures to boost professional development, add programs, tweak curriculum, and the rest. Nothing wrong with any of this, but I'm happy to take the bet if anyone thinks it'll amount to much. If you're wondering how I can be so caustic, peruse my new book The Same Thing Over and Over (due out next month from Harvard).

One intriguing approach worth flagging was suggested by Robert Pondiscio over at the Core Knowledge Blog. Pondiscio savvily picked up on a frequent Tom Vander Ark suggestion, arguing, "If [Zuckerberg] wanted to give $100 million to an urban school district to drive change, why not follow the lead of the X Prize or its many predecessors? Offer it up in the form of a $100 million windfall to the first inner city school district that closes its 8th grade reading achievement gap on NAEP and keeps it closed for three years running? Or the first district to graduate 80% of its 9th graders from high school four years later? Create a rigorous, independent reading test and give the prize to the first district that gets 95% of its third-graders to pass it. Since charter schools are supposed to be our engines of innovation, invite them to the party."

Given his biography, I would've thought an approach like this would have been more up Mr. Zuckerberg's alley. Ah, well. He has managed some remarkable successes; now this well-intentioned young man will get a chance to learn about failure. As young as he is, I hope he responds to any disappointment not by losing interest in schooling but by getting craftier with the next $100 million.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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