Newark’s School Struggle

  • Education
  • 2010

The Newark, New Jersey, school district has the dual notoriety of being one of the most expensive in the country (with-per pupil spending of up to $24,000, and a ratio of one administrator for every six students) and one of the worst performing (where the high-school graduation rate is only 54 percent and more than 90 percent of graduates who attend the local community college require remedial classes). In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to a major effort to transform the public schools of Newark. Other philanthropists chipped in with a nearly equal amount for the bipartisan crusade launched by Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie.

By 2014, much of the philanthropic money had been committed. The largest portion was used to grease new labor arrangements—an agreement with the teacher union includes a more rigorous teacher-evaluation system to identify weak instructors and qualify top instructors for annual bonuses of up to $12,500. Unfortunately it is “balanced” by huge bones thrown to the union in the form of $31 million in undifferentiated “back pay” and a continuation of seniority-based layoff protections that make it extremely difficult to replace personnel. Beyond the pay-for-performance win, the Zuckerberg gift, four years down the road, has brought the Newark public schools 50 freshly chosen principals, several new primary schools and four new high schools, and around a dozen additional charter schools. The charters are the best-performing additions so far, but political resistance has limited them to a modest role in the overall reform, with less than 30 charters currently existing in the entire city.

Meanwhile the next steps in reducing the school district’s dysfunction were supposed to be layoffs of 800 support staff and 1,000 teachers over three years, and some substantial student movement out of poor schools into others. These plans sparked “venomous” anger among reform opponents, and the 2014 election of Ras Baraka (principal of a low-performing high school and son of radical activist Amiri Baraka) as Newark mayor, on a platform promising to “take our schools back.” So while Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropic colleagues brought educational change to Newark, it is very unclear whether that change will be enduring. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg announced in 2014 that he was making another large gift to public schools—this time $120 million to the Bay Area, where, after the Newark experience, he hoped to find “a place where we can engage more directly with the community.”