Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Donation to the Newark Schools: One Year Later

When Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans to donate $100 million to the Newark school system, it was hard to not look upon the gesture without some cynicism. His gift came just as the biopic The Social Network was set to premiere, a film that made the Facebook founder look like a conniving misanthrope. Nonetheless, his donation was heralded in some circles, an act that demonstrated that Zuckerberg, unlike many other CEOs, wouldn't wait for retirement to begin his philanthropic engagements.

But one year later, what's happened to that $100 million? Was it just a publicity stunt designed to earn Zuckerberg some good press? Is it part of a larger trend where Harvard-dropout technology CEOs dabble in education reform? Was it part of a larger political move on the part of Newark Mayor Cory Booker to wrest control back of his city's schools from the state of New Jersey?

New Jersey took over control of the Newark city schools over fifteen years ago -- a response to the dismal conditions and performance in the state's largest school district. Despite the state's intervention, the Newark school system continues to struggle with low graduation rates and test scores.

Not surprising, perhaps, considering the political climate around education reform, Zuckerberg's donation has been mired in controversy. Some Newark residents said they feared that the money would be another example of outsiders dictating the direction of local education; others worried that it was part of a larger push toward steering more money and energy into charter schools. In February, it was discovered that the consulting firm hired by Mayor Booker to outline a plan for the city's schools, one that involved opening at least 12 new charter schools, was a firm founded by the state's education commissioner Christopher Cerf. And in August, the ACLU, along with the Newark Secondary Parent Council, filed a lawsuit against the city -- an Open Records Request, demanding to see documents and correspondence between Zuckerberg, Booker and New Jersey state officials relating to the donation.

The city has refused to disclose the communication between Booker and Zuckerberg, invoking executive privilege and stating that correspondence between the two figures were not made in the court of the mayor's official duties. For its part, the ACLU says that while executive privilege protects the Governor from disclosing records, it does not apply to other elected officials in the state. Furthermore, the ACLU challenges the notion that correspondence between Zuckerberg and Booker falls outside the Newark mayor's duties, particularly as the money in question is dedicated to the city's schools.

When Zuckerberg held a conference call with the press last year announcing his donation, he said there were "no earmarks" for how his $100 million would be spent. Rather than pointing to specific programs he'd like to see funded, he argued instead that the money was an investment in "great leaders" and in Booker in particular -- a comment that, at the time, struck me as fairly revealing about the nature of the donation.

Since then, Zuckerberg's $100 million has helped form The Foundation for Newark's Future, a new non-profit organization designed to help support education reform in the city. Zuckerberg's funds, according to the Foundation's website, "will be made on a one-to-one matching basis in accordance with FNF funding priorities." There are very few other details about the grant application process, requirements or criteria, and there have been some concerns about the make-up of the foundation's advisory board, of which Mayor Booker is an ex-officio member.

Thus far, just $3 million of the FNF's funds have been dispersed, with grants going primarily to charter schools: the Roseville Community Charter School has received $350,000, for example, as has the People's Preparatory Charter School. Today, reports The Wall Street Journal, the city is expected to announce that some money will go directly to schoolteachers in the form of $10,000 grants for "innovative classroom programs." But again, there's little word on the application process. (At the time of publishing this story, neither the city nor the FNF website have been updated with more information, nor has the Twitter-happy Booker offered more than a link to the WSJ story on the new grants. All my requests for interviews with the FNF have been ignored.)

While Zuckerberg's money is starting to reach the Newark schools, it's difficult to gauge the Facebook's CEO role or interest in these reform efforts. The foundation he started last year, Startup Education has not updated its website since it was launched. And even the foundation's Facebook feed has remained dormant. It has posted a few stories in the last 24 hours, having been otherwise quiet since mid-June.

I've reached out to both Facebook and to Startup Education with inquiries about Zuckerberg's plans for Startup Education, but haven't heard any response there either. In the CEO's defense, he did indicate when he made the donation last year that he was busy running Facebook and wouldn't be playing much of a role in the project. No doubt managing the furor over the latest changes to the Facebook news feed is a daunting task.

But, clearly, so is addressing improvements to the Newark public school system.

Image credits: ACLU-NJ


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