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Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Lesson

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Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Lesson

The Wall Street Journal October 5, 2015
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyEducation

‘What happened with the $100 million that Newark’s schools got from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg?” asks a recent headline. “Not much” is the short answer. In her recently released book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” journalist Dale Russakoff attempts to answer the question more fully.

“The goal of improving education in Newark,” she told the Hechinger Report, “is not a hopeless one. But viewing it as something that can be imposed from the top down as opposed from the bottom up, or at least in combination, was really a very central flaw.”

The Facebook founder negotiated his gift with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker in 2010, and it flowed into Newark’s public-school system shortly thereafter. The bulk of the funds supported consultants and the salaries and pensions of teachers and administrators, so the donation only reinforced the bureaucratic and political ills that have long plagued public education in the Garden State.

Mr. Zuckerberg is not the first private donor to fail at reforming public education by working with government—and he won’t be the last.

Mr. Zuckerberg is not the first private donor to fail at reforming public education by working with government—and he won’t be the last. Such efforts date at least to the 1960s, with the Ford Foundation’s ill-fated campaign to decentralize New York City’s public schools by giving community boards the power to fire and hire teachers and principals.

The teachers unions opposed the effort, as anyone could have foreseen. Union leaders called a citywide strike that paralyzed the system and forced Mayor John Lindsay to call the whole thing off. It was an early sign that two great liberal causes—reform and unionization—could not be reconciled. But many foundations and individual donors haven’t learned the lesson.

In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg sought to improve education by awarding $500 million to America’s public schools. As an article on the Philanthropy Roundtable’s website notes, Annenberg assumed that the money “plus a bit of goodwill and social engineering could nudge American public schooling into new effectiveness.” 

But the $1.1 billion in spending that resulted, thanks to matching grants, accomplished little. An assessment by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on the schools that received funds reached a dismal conclusion: “Findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that . . . there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect.” The report did not explain why the campaign failed, but the reason is fairly obvious: The funds wound up in the hands of the unions, administrators and political figures who created the problems in the first place.

The mistakes continue. The new president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, announced earlier this year that the foundation would focus on fixing what he sees as broken political systems and on supporting public institutions, including schools. Philanthropists, who are not hemmed in by interest groups or institutional restraints, are tempted by the planning fallacy—the conviction that the government turns up bad results because there isn’t a plan. But vision is not the problem.

Donors lavish gifts on public schools because they wield most of the power and nearly all of the money. Public-school systems spend more than $500 billion a year on K-12 education nationwide and the Education Department will spend $87 billion this year on public projects—sums that dwarf the $5 billion that foundations spent last year in the field. The truth, as William Schambra of the Hudson Institute notes, is that $100 million is “a drop in the bucket” of most large public-school districts. When it is funneled into items like teacher salaries, as Mr. Zuckerberg’s money was, it will be meaningless.

Yet there are some philanthropists and foundations that appear to have learned from these errors. In 2003, Michael Bailin, when he was president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, delivered a refreshing lecture at Georgetown University that described some of his philanthropy’s missteps.

“The problem, in a nutshell, was this: In all of those programs, in education and justice and child welfare and neighborhood improvement, we were trying to reform huge, complex, entrenched, multi-billion-dollar public systems—with a staff of 25 people and around $25 million a year in grants.”

He went on: “We were fighting battles that had tested the power and wealth of serial U.S. Congresses and presidencies. It was a battle of Homeric proportions fought with Lilliputian resources. How could we ever imagine that we could accomplish anything so significant in our lifetimes? And how would we even know if we did?”

Fortunately, Mr. Bailin dismantled some of the vast social re-engineering structure that his predecessors had put in place and instead backed some successful nonprofits. Other philanthropists have done the same. In 1998, John Walton and Ted Forstmann each gave $50 million to fund scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. More than 140,000 students have attended schools with graduation and college matriculation rates that exceed 90% instead of going to the failing schools in their neighborhoods.

Earlier this summer, hedge-fund manager John Paulson pledged $8.5 million to the Success Academy charter-school network, where 93% of students are proficient in math, compared with 35% of their traditional public-school peers. His gift will allow more such schools to open. The financier Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, a former attorney, donated $40 million to help endow the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to needy children attending Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York.

Philanthropists will not be able to change education and improve student outcomes unless they can circumvent the bureaucracies and interest groups that are responsible for the problems they hope to solve. If they act independently, though, their money has the potential to alter the lives not only of individual students, but entire communities.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal