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What Happens in Newark Won't Stay in Newark

Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million grant to improve schools in Newark is old news. But for readers who have short memories, it was made on the condition that Mayor Cory Booker would have to come up with matching funds from other wealthy donors. The plan was approved by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie because Newark's schools had been under state control since 1995. So far, obtaining private funding has not been a problem, but boosting student performance certainly has. That's why I believe there are lessons to be learned from there.

At first glance, the willingness of the super rich to write checks to help struggling school districts seems magnanimous. After all, they could choose to use their wealth for their own personal pleasures alone. But I'm more cynical. I believe it has largely to do with getting their hands on the $600 billion spent on public education in this country. Although Newark is relatively small potatoes in this regard, it is a good place to establish a quid pro quo. Let's face it: Hedge fund managers rarely act except in their own best self-interest, and they do so by attaching strings to their giving.

Perhaps that's why residents sensed something. In April 2011, the Secondary Parents Council, a group whose children and grandchildren attended Newark schools, demanded to see e-mail exchanges between Booker, Zuckerberg and funders ("Facebook and Newark Schools: About the $100 Million ..." Bloomberg Businessweek, Jun. 28). When Booker refused, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of the organization. The New Jersey Superior Court has not yet made a decision.

Whatever the ruling, the move to impose a corporate model of schooling will continue unabated. Its leaders justify the transformation by pointing to the need to beat the global economic competition. But as I've written often before, there is less connection between schooling and the economy than believed. Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein made this abundantly clear: "The honesty of our capital markets, the accountability of our corporations, our fiscal-policy and currency management, our national investment in R & D and infrastructure, and the fair-play of the trading system (or its absence), also influence whether the U.S. economy reaps the gains of Americans' diligence and ingenuity. The singular obsession with schools deflects political attention from policy failures in those other realms" ("Schools as Scapegoats," The American Prospect, Oct. 12, 2007).

I urge skeptics to read "Why U.S. economic policy is paralyzed" (The Washington Post, Jul. 8). The writer explains why the health of the economy is the result of the adoption of policies that have nothing at all to do with the state of schools. Nevertheless, corporate reformers understand the power of propaganda in molding public opinion. That's why I expect to see an increased emphasis on publicizing the failures of schools while ignoring their successes. Undermining confidence paves the way for the corporate agenda to become a reality.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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