Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other philanthropists have won much praise for donating $148 million to the long-struggling school system of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. A recent review of records by the Newark-based Education Law Center has found that nearly one-third of the first $13 million donated has gone to consultants and contractors, not to students. Moreover, many of those who have received funds have ties to Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor, and to Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s acting state Education Commissioner who was appointed by Governor Chris Christie.
Back in July, the Education Law Center requested to see correspondence between Cerf, Booker, officials from Zuckerberg’s national philanthropic foundation, Start Up: Education, and the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which was founded to distribute the money. New Jersey’s Department of Education has also released 49 pages of emails, meeting minutes and budget documents.
In reviewing emails from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the Education Law Center reviewed has found that, between January and September of this year, $7.4 million has been spent on school-based programs. These include four experimental high schools, an extended school day and professional development for principals and teachers, as well as some other initiatives. However, $4.3 million has gone to political and educational consultants, at least $3.9 million to companies and individuals who have ties Cerf and Booker.
In fact, one of the largest recipients of funds to the tune of $1,957,600, is Global Education Advisors, which Cerf started in his home in Montclair, NJ, and divested from after assuming his post in Christie’s administration. Prior to Cerf becoming education commissioner, Booker had hired Global Education Advisors for consulting work. Global Education Advisors’ consultants had only previously revealed a $500,000 grant; the additional funds are said to be dedicated to “analyz[ing] resources and academic performance in the Newark Public Schools and mak[ing] recommendations to the incoming superintendent.” The company had come under criticism by parents in Newark last February, when it proposed a plan to close and consolidate failing Newark schools and lease some of the district’s facilities to charter schools.
When contacted by the Star-Ledger last Wednesday, Cerf said he had “no involvement” in Global Education Advisors’ current work.
Cerf also has ties to the second biggest recipient of the Facebook founder’s donation, New York-based Tusk Strategies, a political consulting firm that managed the 2009 re-election campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Cerf had been a deputy education chancellor under Bloomberg and left that post to work on his campaign. Tusk cerated PENewark, a campaign to solicit public input about school reform efforts in Newark that has been met with much criticism:
When PENewark first began its work last November, Booker said only $1 million would be spent on the effort — roughly $500,000 for salaries and $500,000 for advertising. Tusk was paid more than $1.5 million between October 2010 and April 2011, according to the e-mails. Taylor said Wednesday the cost of the PENewark initiative was $2 million.
Bari Mattes, Booker’s long-time fundraiser, was paid $120,000 to help launch the foundation and recruit its leadership. De’Shawn Wright, the mayor’s then-education adviser, was paid $94,500 “to develop a strategy for accepting Mark Zuckerberg’s generous gift and to support Bari’s work,” Taylor said. Neither is still under contract with the group and neither could be reached for comment.
Cerf has some other ties. He is one of the “Chiefs For Change” of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the organization led by Jeb Bush that recently held a well-publicized conference in San Francisco, the National Summit on Education Reform, at which Rupert Murdoch was a keynote speaker.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit to obtain records of Booker’s correspondence concerning the Facebook grant. A lot more transparency is needed to know where Zuckerberg’s gift is going: It’s certainly disappointing to learn that so many dollars are ending up in the pockets of educational and political consultants with such connections, in the name of “helping” teachers and students in Newark schools.
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