RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now, to a story of a helping hand from another young star. Last fall, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to improve public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Since then, other donors have pledged tens of millions in matching funds. The plan for how to spend the money is now taking shape, and a new superintendent is coming in to lead the effort to reform the city's schools. But as Nancy Solomon reports, the huge infusion of money from private sources has fueled fears that New York's public school system will be privatized.
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NANCY SOLOMON: Thousands of Newark residents turned up at school board meetings this spring to protest Mayor Cory Booker's reform agenda, most notably a plan to close underperforming schools and place charter schools alongside regular schools in the same building.
Unidentified Man: You can have your charters but never cross the doorway of our public schools. Take your pound of flesh.
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Mr. LUCIOUS JONES: Folks are having an issue with the transparency. And they're having an issue with trust.
SOLOMON: Lucious Jones, a parent and PTA member, says Mayor Booker's reform plan was presented fully formed without involving parents.
Mr. JONES: Theres been no community meetings. There are parents, there are community people who really want to be involved. They want to be in on the ground floor. We want to see community schools. We want to see functioning traditional public schools.
SOLOMON: People are also suspicious about who is making the decisions and whether they stand to profit. First, theres Chris Cerf, the new Acting State Commissioner of Education, who ultimately has control over Newarks schools because New Jersey took them over in 1995. Cerf is a founding partner in a firm that consults with school districts, including Newark. Now he sits on the board of the Foundation for Newarks Future, created by the mayor to double the Facebook gift and make the grants.
The donors are venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and technology billionaires. Another board member works for Goldman Sachs, which donated to the foundation and also invests in for-profit education companies.
Paul Trachtenberg, a Rutgers professor of education law says this gives too much control of public institutions to private donors.
Professor PAUL TRACTENBERG (Education Law, Rutgers University): It's driven by corporate notions of how one might run a more efficient system of schooling, not really by focusing on professionalization of education. But rather, the reverse of de-professionalizing the schools, and assuming that if you're successful as a corporate manager, you can run a school system.
SOLOMON: A few days after Tractenberg made these comments, Governor Chris Christie announced he would hand over the operation of five underperforming schools in New Jersey to private companies. Trachtenberg says he fears Newark is headed in the same direction, privatizing education through for-profit school operators and charter schools.
Mayor CORY BOOKER (Newark, New Jersey): I think thats a horrible characterization, frankly.
SOLOMON: Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Mayor BOOKER: The focus of the Zuckerberg grant is not to fund charter schools. It will be going towards traditional district schools. So that is just a falsehood.
SOLOMON: Mayor Booker says he intends to focus on extending the school day and shortening the summer break. He also wants to focus on hiring quality teachers, providing better training for the teachers already in Newark, and reducing administrative staff and regulations.
Mayor BOOKER: We want to make our principals real school leaders and instructional leaders by liberating them of a lot of the compliance of a huge central bureaucracy. So this is some of the things we know were going to be doing: focusing on the classroom, focusing on the teachers, focusing on independence, on autonomy of schools. But at the same time, higher levels of accountability.
SOLOMON: The mayor says hes planning to add more community representatives onto the board. But so far, hes failed to convince some of his long-time supporters, such as Reverend Bill Howard at Bethany Baptist Church.
Reverend BILL HOWARD (Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church): So when I say to him, talk to educators, he's says to me: I'm talking to the educators, except I can't meet any he's talking to.
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Rev. HOWARD: You know, he's asked me who he should talk to? I've recommended people. They haven't heard from him yet. So the mayor may prove to be absolutely right. He may prove that the ideas he has are the ones we've been waiting for. But poor me, I just don't think so.
SOLOMON: Howards church is home to a successful charter school, but hes concerned that too many privately operated schools will ultimately undermine the public school district. He says much of the promise of school reform in Newark will depend on how quickly the mayor can build bridges in a community that is feeling a lot more suspicion than hope.
For NPR News, Im Nancy Solomon.
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