- In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million toward creating an education foundation in Newark, New Jersey. The goal was to help the city’s struggling school system.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said that the foundation did not use the money wisely.
- Baraka added that he wishes the foundation would’ve engaged with local community groups, rather than “parachuting” into the city.
On the stage of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced a huge gift for Newark, a New Jersey city that’s a short train ride from Manhattan.
The Facebook founder gave $100 million to reform Newark Public Schools, and other philanthropists later matched that, bringing the total donation to $200 million.
The money went toward creating the Foundation for Newark’s Future, a group that set out to improve the city’s public schools.
At the time, Newark’s high-school graduation rate hovered at around 60%, 19 points below the national average. Of those who graduated, 90% needed to take remedial classes before entering the local community college. Fewer than 40% of students were reading at grade level.
The results of the $200 million experiment were disappointing, according to now-Mayor Ras Baraka and other critics. The foundation had five years to spend the money, and in 2016, it closed its doors.
The Foundation for Newark's Future, partially funded by Zuckerberg, 'parachuted' into the city
Zuckerberg wasn't personally involved with the foundation's efforts, and according to Baraka, the group did not spend the Facebook founder's donation wisely. He wishes the foundation would have engaged more with local community members to find solutions specific to Newark.
The money "didn't go to the city, and it didn't go to the school system either. It went to a foundation that made decisions about what the money should be spent on," he said at a Wall Street Journal conference on Wednesday. "You can't just cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say, 'This is going to fix everything.' You have to engage with communities that already exist ... To parachute folks in, it becomes problematic."
In a follow-up interview with Business Insider, Baraka explained that he wished the foundation had worked with local groups like the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, the Newark Teachers Union, and the Newark chapter of the NAACP - which have all focused on local education issues for many years.
The foundation may have acted without fully understanding local issues, so it was hard for them to devise good solutions, he said.
"There needed to be a discussion with a series of organizations in the city ... to talk about the concrete issues and narrow them down to specific things they could've impacted over a long period of time," Baraka said.
He gave the example of chronic absenteeism, an issue research suggests can lead to poor socio-emotional outcomes. The foundation advised that the school district remove attendance counselors in order to grapple with statewide budget issues, a choice Baraka criticizes.
Much of the $200 million went toward buying out contracts of underperforming teachers, which also served as a cost-saving move, The New Yorker reported in 2014. Sixty million dollars was funneled into charters - schools that are privately run but publicly funded - and millions more went to $1,000-a-day consultants.
Baraka said the foundation's efforts were "based on this idea that our teachers and leaders are produced in these think-tank groups," he said. "But that's just your opinion of what you think is successful - as opposed to a real discussion about what concrete things make schools work ... and building structures around students so they perform better. [The foundation should have] directly responded to the trauma students have undergone living in their communities."
The initiative was part of Zuckerberg's larger mission at the time to repair floundering schools in cities across the US. Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter, followed the Newark foundation's work in his 2015 book "The Prize." She wrote that Booker and Zuckerberg's "stated goal was not to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America."
The foundation's improvement of Newark's schools was underwhelming
While it's hard to measure the foundation's qualitative success, some research suggests that it made modest progress before shutting down in 2016. (It was designed to be just a five-year initiative.)
A 2016 study from Harvard University looked at school data from 2009 through 2016, and compared the achievement growth of Newark's students to that of similar schools elsewhere in New Jersey. Its findings suggest that Newark students improved sharply in English, but made no significant progress in math.
Another analysis by NYU professor Jesse Margolis found that high-school graduation rates and overall student enrollment rates in Newark have also risen. Both reports tied the gains to Newark's education reform, which started with the $200 million donation.
From the start, the foundation seemed to have a pro-charter philosophy. In a 2010 TechCrunch interview before the donation, Zuckerberg suggested that Newark should close underperforming schools, increase the number of charter schools, and implement a student performance-based pay system for teachers.
Baraka said the Foundation for Newark's Future had a similar thinking to Zuckerberg. Along with its staff, the group had a board of trustees led by Kimberly McLain, a former executive for Teach for America, which has also faced criticism.
According to McLain, the foundation devoted over $2 million for citywide literacy initiatives, put $1.5 million toward an effort to increase Newark's college graduation rate, and provided summer employment to over 2,000 students.
Zuckerberg's 2010 donation was one of his first forays into education. That same year, he founded Start-Up: Education Foundation, which has since merged with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an organization started by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. As part of that initiative, the couple has pledged up to $1 billion in Facebook shares every year from 2016 to the end of 2018.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative focuses on a number of areas, including poverty and science, and granted funds toward several education projects, most of which rely on a personalized learning philosophy. This education strategy, which has recently grown in popularity, emphasizes customizing curriculums and classrooms to individual students' needs.
"We engage directly in the communities we serve because no one understands our society's challenges like those who live them every day," the Chan Zuckerberg site reads. "These partners help us identify problems and opportunities, learn fast, and iterate toward our goals for the next century."
Silicon Valley's mission to fix America's education systems
Zuckerberg's 2010 donation hinted at Silicon Valley's larger push into education in recent years.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will soon have another go at repairing America's schools. On Tuesday, the organization announced it's teaming up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on a national education initiative. The organizations plan to explore several potential pilot projects that focus on improving students' writing, math, and IQ. The effort is now looking for ideas from across sectors - from academia to medicine.
In a joint statement, representatives of the organizations said they hope to tap into the nation's "unrealized potential to accelerate student learning."
"The purpose of the initiative is not to mandate anything," they wrote. "It's to learn from the work that's currently happening in classrooms, universities, entrepreneurial efforts, and research centers throughout the country."