Is $100M Gift Enough To Save Newark Schools?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced Friday he is giving $100 million to improve the public schools in Newark, N.J. The Newark schools are among the nation's worst. They've been under state control for 15 years, and millions of public and private dollars have already been poured into them. Yet student test scores and graduation rates remain low. What can Zuckerberg's gift do to change that?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

School reform took center stage today as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." He announced a gift of $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey public schools.

Mr. MARK ZUCKERBERG (Founder and CEO, Facebook): I've had a lot of opportunities in my life and a lot of that comes from, you know, having gone to really good schools. And I just want to do what I can to make sure that everyone has those same opportunities.

SIEGEL: At first blush, it appears to be a coo for Newark schools and for the state's political leaders. But as Nancy Solomon reports, there are concerns about whether the money will really make a difference.

NANCY SOLOMON: The usually very private 26-year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg appeared on "Oprah" with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Following the playbook of other wealthy school reformers, Zuckerberg says he's impressed with plans that close failing schools, open more charter schools and provide merit pay to teachers who raise test scores.

But the Facebook founder says he'll leave the actual plan to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Mr. ZUCKERBERG: One of the things I want to do here is not build out a large of foundation or anything, but I just invest in people that I really believe in. Mayor Booker and Governor Christie, just from all the interactions that we have, are people who I really believe in to build what we need to get done here.

SOLOMON: Zuckerberg has no connection to Newark other than having met Booker at a conference, which led to discussions about the gift. He says he's forming a foundation called Start Up Education with $100 million of Facebook stock. Mayor Booker says he'll solicit another $100 million in matching funds for Newark schools. And he's staking his political career on school success.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Democrat, Newark, New Jersey): We want to hold everybody accountable, from teachers, classrooms and schools to parents and community leaders. Nobody can get a pass. And for too long, we've allowed ourselves to point fingers in different directions, and that's just not acceptable anymore.

SOLOMON: Newark schools receive extra state aid, which keeps per pupil spending high. But it has only 50 percent graduation rates and low average test scores.

Rutgers University law professor Paul Tractenberg, who's been involved in changing the way the state funds low income school districts in New Jersey for 40 years, says he's simultaneously thrilled and dismayed with today's announcement.

Thrilled that so much attention and money is pouring into school reform, but dismayed that the focus is almost solely on charter schools and paying bonuses to teachers who boosts test scores.

Professor PAUL TRACTENBERG (Law, Rutgers University): I'd like to see data before I go ahead and spend $100 million here or a billion there. And the data, for example, such as what we have now, the studies on what's the effect of a merit pay system for teachers on student achievement suggests there isn't.

SOLOMON: Tractenberg says there have been major improvements in Newark, but the system has been plagued by leadership turnover and the effects of poverty on its students.

A new project that intends to address poverty along with schooling, the Global Village School Zone, also has support of Booker. Its director, Lauren Wells, says she hopes school reform in Newark will address the broader needs of families.

Dr. LAUREN WELLS (Director, Global Village School Zone): We can't continue to think about education reform in the absence of the larger conditions in which schools are situated.

SOLOMON: Newark schools had been under state control for 15 years. The Facebook money included the requirement that the governor turnover control to Booker even though the governor would retain veto power.

This immediately raised the hackles of activists who see it as an end run around the efforts to return to a locally elected school board. But Booker says he'll immediately begin holding community meetings in October to build support and trust for his plans for school change.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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