A Deeper Look at the Newark, NJ Public Schools and the Zuckerberg Donation

For those of you who have not yet headed to your Christmas destinations (or are bah-humbug Jews like myself), perhaps you'd be interested in my latest feature story, for The Nation, about schools and education reform in Newark, New Jersey in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg's much-hyped $100 million donation.

I spent a good amount of time in Newark reporting this piece, and I left feeling that the city's story has crucial implications for the national education reform debate.  As one source told me, the Zuckerberg donation, announced on "Oprah," was packaged with a sort of "missionary spirit that will obviously grate on people." Yes. The media have painted a picture of the Newark schools as insufferably, uniquely terrible. In reality, Newark struggles with the same challenges most urban districts face, and Newark has actually achieved some nationally-recognized successes over the past decade on early childhood literacy and African American male high school graduation rates, which I detail in the piece. 

It's also very important to keep gigantic philanthropic gifts in perspective. Even with its matching grant, the Zuckerberg money is equal to only 4 percent of the Newark public schools' $900 million annual budget each year for five years. What's more, the gift comes as Newark and other New Jersey urban school districts brace for over $1 billion in budget cuts instituted by Gov. Chris Christie.

The bottom line: The donation is a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts, yet we hype corporate philanthropy even as we ignore the larger story of the public sector being starved of much-needed resources.

I hope you read the whole article, which also deals with Mayor Cory Booker's political ambitions and the debate in Newark over whether to spend the Zuckerberg money on neighborhood public schools or opening new charter schools. 

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