21 September 2018

Philanthropy and the “mess” in Newark schools

by Sean Parnell, Vice President of Public Policy

I’ve noted to a few people in conversations that I think Mark Zuckerberg too often gets a bum rap over his $100 million gift to the city of Newark, New Jersey for education reform. The way the story is often told by critics of the gift makes it sound like Zuckerberg flew in on a plane to Newark with his checkbook and started telling people what’s what. I’ve even heard the term “colonialist” used to describe the gift.

The short version of what really happened was that then-mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker as well as then-Governor Chris Christie recruited Zuckerberg to be the primary funder (other philanthropists gave later as well) of an education reform plan that the two New Jersey pols had developed together. I think it’s fair to say Zuckerberg was a little naïve in thinking that these two powerful elected officials were the only two people he really needed to talk to about this reform plan, but it’s hardly the case that this is an example of a powerful philanthropist pushing his agenda off on some community with no real input into what was happening.

What made me think of this today is an article in Inside Philanthropy regarding Anand Giridharadas’s book, Winners Take All, which apparently takes a rather dim view of how the wealthy conduct their philanthropy. I’ll have more to say about this book at a later time after I’ve read it, I’m sure, but the piece by David Callahan (founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy) references the Newark experience in the inaccurate way I’ve come to expect from many critics of philanthropy. Callahan writes:

Like the many progressive critics of charter schools, Giridharadas depicts philanthropists as trying to shove government aside so they can call the shots, guided by market ideology and their own brilliance. Diane Ravitch has been most trenchant on this point, arguing that a clueless “billionaire boy’s club” of education reformers has done an end-run around democracy—only to make a mess of things in places like Newark, with kids of color paying the price.

It’s not clear whether Callahan’s view is identical to Ravitch’s or whether he’s simply passing along her view, though he certainly does nothing to dispute it. And, of course, it’s easily disputable – it’s hardly the case that Newark’s schools weren’t already a “mess” before Zuckerberg’s gift, in fact quite the opposite. That, I’m sure, was a big part of why Zuckerberg made the gift – the schools were already a “mess” and he hoped he could reverse that by supporting the Booker/Christie reform plan.

More important than reversing the misleading claim that a philanthropist’s meddling made Newark’s schools a “mess,” however, is recognizing that the schools actually seem to be doing quite a bit better in Newark since the gift was made and the reform plan of Booker and Christie was (more or less) implemented. As reported by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, the schools in Newark have shown improvement in recent years:

By the fifth year of reform, Newark saw statistically significant gains in English and no significant change in math achievement growth. Perhaps due to the disruptive nature of the reforms, growth declined initially before rebounding in recent years. Aided by the closure of low value-added schools, much of the improvement was due to shifting enrollment from lower-to higher-growth district and charter schools. Shifting enrollment accounted for 62 percent of the improvement in English. In math, such shifts offset what would have been a decline in achievement growth.

I’m not really qualified to get too deep into the weeds on public school reform, but it certainly seems like an unfair characterization to say that some clueless billionaire philanthropist parachuted into Newark and made “a mess of things” leaving schoolchildren to suffer in his wake. Something maybe worth considering the next time philanthropy critics start leveling broad charges against those trying to aid the least fortunate.