Just about a year ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a $100 million gift to the public school system of Newark, New Jersey’s largest, and long troubled, city. Newark’s schools have been under the control of the state government; the city’s students are some of the state’s lowest performing, with about half not graduating from high school and low standardized testing scores. I’ve had a number of students from Newark’s public schools and all have struggled in college classes: It’s not that they lack the ability and motivation, but the education they did (or didn’t) receive while younger often impedes their studies in college. Zuckerberg is originally from West Orange, a well-heeled suburb of Newark.
He announced his gift on the Oprah Winfrey show in the presence of New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker and won many accolades. So why are New Jersey’s ACLU and a group of Newark parents suing the city regarding Zuckerberg’s gift?
As the Star-Ledger reports, the ACLU is calling for greater transparency after the city denied an April 5th Open Public Records Act request from a parent advocacy group:
“As parents, as taxpayers and as citizens, we have a need and right to know how the money pledged to Newark’s public schools will ultimately serve Newark’s public school students,” said Laura Baker, the grandmother of a Newark public school student who filed the initial OPRA request on behalf of the Secondary Parents Council, a 30-year-old group of Newark parents and grandparents.
The city called the request “overly broad” and said that Booker was “not acting in his capacity as mayor when he solicited the contribution and that even if he was, his correspondence would be protected by executive privilege.” But Newark residents have plenty of reason to be wary of how officials might be using funds. One reason the state took over the city’s schools was due to waste and mismanagement, including school board members using taxpayer dollars on cars and restaurant meals, notes NPR.
An “exasperated” Booker has said that
…there are no documents, that the group set up to administer Facebook funds has been completely transparent and that the ACLU of New Jersey was using the issue as a publicity stunt.
“The ACLU has not gone after the Prudential Foundation which gives tens of millions of dollars. They’ve not gone after the Victoria Foundation which gives tens of millions of dollars,” Booker said, referring to two philanthropic organizations that give to a variety of causes in Newark, including education. “They’re using Mark Zuckerberg and me to attract publicity to themselves.”
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU’s state chapter, noted that it seems unlikely that there are no documents about the donation “based on the mayor’s reputation as a prolific texter, e-mailer and tweeter as well as the city’s initial response to the request.” Indeed, Booker has drawn quite a bit of publicity for his regular tweeting, especially during last winter’s snowmaggedon when he used the social media service to help shovel out the city’s streets.
So far, Booker — who has raised $44 million to match Zuckerberg’s gift — says that nearly $22 million has been spent on an “outreach effort, consultants and startup money for four new public high schools“; he also said that “applications are in the works for another $1 million to fund longer school days and ‘several hundred thousand’ to build new playgrounds.”
Initial, and continued, suspicion about “Booker’s intentions” about the huge gift arose regarding charter schools, which Christie has not been shy about his support for. New Jersey’s Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, a Christie appointee, is, after all the former president of the world’s largest for-profit operator of public schools, Edison Schools Inc.,” which “partners” with public school districts and also runs charter schools. One of the “miracle” charter schools that Christie has singled out is Robert Treat Academy (RTA) in Newark about which the Star-Ledger’s Bob Braun has a few things to point out:
Forget, for the moment, that the academy was founded by political boss and Christie ally Steve Adubato, whose daughter is the principal and earns more than $130,000 a year. Or that it rents its facility from an organization run by Adubato. Or that it hired the son of the Essex County executive as a teacher. What’s nepotism got to do with great education?
Let’s look at the scores — and they are great. In third-grade language arts, RTA children scored 36.1 points above the Newark district percentage passing rate. In third-grade math, they scored 38.1 points above. Those kinds of scores held true throughout the grades. In sixth-grade language arts, all RTA students passed the statewide test — 65.6 points ahead of the district pass rate.
But, now, let’s look at student characteristics. According to the state’s data, of RTA’s 500 students, 42.9 percent are eligible for the federal free-lunch program — compared with 71.2 percent of children in the district. By income level, those children are not comparable. Only 6.6 percent of RTA’s students have been classified as disabled, compared with 19.7 of the district’s students. Again, the populations are simply not comparable.
The state has consistently refused this newspaper’s request to provide the data that would make comparisons of comparable student populations possible.
There are other, less quantifiable differences. Parent interest and ability to attend required meetings and activities. Charters can and do expel students — regular schools can’t. Charters also are free from many regulations imposed on public schools. And are the lotteries truly “blind?”
You can’t blame Newark parents for wanting to keep a bit of a close eye on the “status” of the Facebook mogul’s $100 million gift.
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Photo of Barringer High School in Newark by By Jim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons