Last week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made waves by announcing a $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey public schools at the same time news reports revealed the young entrepreneur had climbed higher on the ranks of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Never one to miss a media opportunity, Mayor Cory Booker joined Zuckerman and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the Oprah Winfrey Show for the big announcement. The circus like atmosphere around the announcement befits the bizarre nature of public education in the Garden State today.
No one can deny the Newark public school system can use the cash. After Governor Christie’s team blew a chance for $400 million by failing to properly fill out its “Race to the Top” application due the Department of Education, folks in New Jersey will accept any change thrown in the tin cup. And $100 million is no small sum of money. Still, there is something wrong when we have come to the point that private philanthropy has to rescue a public school system. It is unsettling to think that monied interests are about to change the public education landscape in the same way they have infiltrated politics.
The catch here, of course, is that Mayor Booker has cozied up to Governor Christie, an unabashed conservative who has taken pleasure in giving a public flogging to teachers and civil servants. Christie and Booker occupy the same philosophical think space on the issue of school choice and vouchers. The mayor has been vocal in his plea to take control of the public school system. He is following the lead of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed Booker’s re-election, and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whose recent primary loss can be largely attributed to the unpopularity of his school chancellor Michelle Rhee. The chancellor became Fenty’s “muscle” as the mayor pursued his “school reform” agenda. Given the train wreck that occurred, don’t expect to see any public schools named in honor of Fenty in the foreseeable future.
Back to Newark and its newly fattened wallet. Part of the deal for the Zuckerberg gift is that the state of New Jersey will return some of the control of the city’s public school system back to Newark. Like school districts in Paterson and Jersey City, the state had seized control to offset fiscal mismanagement and low academic performance. Mayor Booker has already sent the state appointed superintendent packing and will now have the opportunity to anoint the successor. Now that Booker has gained some control of the public school system and is flush with Facebook cash, he is truly on the spot to deliver much promised improvements to the city’s schools.
The debate has already begun on what to do with the $100 million gift. The mayor has indicated he will not use it to push a charter schools-on-steroids transformation of the public schools. That’s a good thing because the jury is still out on whether charter schools can be a universal approach to solve the public education crisis. Hopefully, the mayor will include a broad representation of Newark voices, including teachers and parents, in determining how best to use Zuckerman’s largesse. One thing is certain; there must be a full accounting of how these funds will be used and transparency in the allocation of monies. It would be helpful if a trusted third-party administered the funds to increase public confidence that decisions will not be driven by politics and that the focus will be on the children of Newark.
Though I cannot be critical of anyone making such a generous gift to a community in need, there is an aspect of this donation that turns my stomach. It is no coincidence that Zuckerberg is the centerpiece of a new movie on the founding of Facebook that offers a not too flattering picture of the founder. At the same time Governor Christie is attempting to avoid a legislative inquiry on the $400 million mistake that prompted him to throw his education commissioner under the bus. At the same time Booker’s popularity is waning in the city as his plan to fill a crater size deficit with a municipal water authority went down in flames. Enter the Geek! With a wave of Oprah’s magic wand, Newark gets $100 million for its schools, Zuckerberg gets some good pr, Booker gets to play school czar, and Christie gets to subtract the gift from the mistake. The audience gets to cheer for the support of poor Black and Latino children. On Oprah everybody gets something!
Seriously though, with rumors that Bill Gates might be itching to get some skin in the game in Newark, somebody needs to ask if this is any way to sustain a public school system. We are only fooling ourselves if we get intoxicated with the gifts of Geeks. The real focus should be on lawmakers in the state capital and demanding full financial support and meaningful reform of public education.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.