In Newark, Zuckerberg School Money Sparks First Fallout

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Barbara Martinez, The Wall Street Journal reporter covering public education, talked about the controversy in Newark over how contributions for schools—including a $100 million donation from Facebook and $44 million from other donors—are being distributed.

Donations and divisions

Given Mark Zuckerberg's public statements in support of charter schools and merit-based pay for teachers, the way Newark spends his money on education will be heavily scrutinized until it's gone.

The first million dollars of Facebook's largess was just allocated to five new alternative high schools in the city, a move that's already upset some members of the school board. There's a sentiment in Newark that problems with existing institutions need to be addressed before adding more players to the field. But Barbara Martinez said this internal division is more likely rooted in communication problems than ideology—a former superintendent made plans for these schools even before Zuckerberg stepped in. Still, it highlights just how muddled the process of making education policy and spending decisions has become, especially since the recent windfall.

I don't think the advisory board members that would have normally been pro giving this money to these schools understood what it was all about, so they made their vote based on being in the dark. And that's been a criticism: people feel this is not a transparent process, that they don't have enough information, so they're just going to throw up their hands and say, 'No, because we don't understand it.'

Who's the boss?

Another complicating factor is the absence of a school superintendent. Newark's last was "shown the door" by Governor Chris Christie some months ago. Martinez said that leaves a gaping hole and a big question mark for the city.

Is it possible that no one wants to step into Newark? There's this issue of who is your boss: is it the Mayor? The advisory board? Christie, who has great ideas about education reform, but has also been called a bully? What's unclear here is, is it that they can't find anybody to take the job, or is it that they can't find anybody good?

Perplexing, but there's a chance the powers that be are only holding off on adding a new superintendent until after school board elections in late April, Martinez said.

Booker's burden

With every funding decision from here on out, it seems the people of Newark will be suspicious that money is being used to undermine the existing education infrastructure, rather than repair what's in place.

Martinez said that kind of dissension and parochialism was par for the course in Newark, and would make Mayor Corey Booker's job—getting the public united behind an education reform plan—all the more difficult.

Some of the donors might have a sense of grandeur that you just put in a bunch of money and get the reforms you want. The real job here is for Booker to be a Geronimo and convince people that he's not just going to apply what Zuckerberg wants him to do; that he's out there, he's listening to parents, that he wants to get their feedback and doesn't want to plow through reforms already thought out in his head or Christie's head. They are trying very hard to have people feel like he's bringing them along with them.