Despite Facebook Philanthropy, Newark Schools Struggle

CBS News, September 22, 2015

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show five years ago this week to announce a $100 million donation to remake education in Newark, it was presented as an effort to make a struggling city a national model for turning around urban schools.

Advocates see success in the most visible result so far–many more students in charter schools. But the exodus of students and the public funding that comes with them from the Newark Public Schools has deepened a financial crisis in a district that still educates most of the children in New Jersey’s largest city.

A big part of Zuckerberg’s mission was also to improve the traditional public schools. While there have been major changes there, too, indicators such as student test scores have been mixed.

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So has Zuckerberg’s donation, which was matched with another $100 million from other donors, shown that big-scale philanthropy guarantees quick change?

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“We’ve proven at this point that answer is no,” said Derrell Bradford, a supporter of Zuckerberg’s effort and leader of the New York school reform group NYCAN, who previously worked for similar groups in New Jersey. Bradford pointed out that $200 million is a tiny portion–about 4 percent–of what it has cost to run the school district for the past five years.

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The donation to Newark schools, which were taken over by the state in 1995, came about as a meeting of the minds of Zuckerberg with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Cory Booker, a Democrat who was then Newark mayor and is now a U.S. senator. The politicians agreed on a strategy focused on closing the worst schools, offering incentives to higher-performing teachers and launching new kinds of schools–and they sold it to Zuckerberg.

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Ryan Hill, the chief operating officer of the New Jersey schools run by national charter operator KIPP, said the contributions allowed the group to expand from two Newark schools to eight. Children in Newark–and especially African-American pupils–are now far more likely to be in a good school, Hill said.

“Starting new high-performing schools is a lot easier than turning around an enormous system,” he said.

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From 2010 to 2014, the percentage of district students meeting standards on statewide tests fell in many cases. For instance, a lower portion of both fourth and eighth graders score as at least proficient in language arts. The passage rate also declined for fourth graders in math, while a slightly higher percentage of eighth-graders passed.

Sciarra believes the growth of charter schools has hurt traditional schools by siphoning off money, as well as students from the families most motivated to succeed.

“Conditions on the ground have not improved. They’ve gotten worse,” Sciarra said.

Still, the graduation rate made a big jump from 2011 to 2012 and has been relatively steady since then. Cerf, the superintendent, said the improving graduation rate is significant and so is another development–that teachers rated as “ineffective” started leaving their jobs more often than those deemed “effective” or “highly effective.”

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Last year, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $120 million donation to improve the educations, especially of low-income students, in the San Francisco Bay area. Zuckerberg’s Startup:Education foundation says it’s applying some lessons from Newark, especially about “the importance of meaningful community partnerships.”

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