Mark Zuckerberg's money lays path for change in Newark schools

Most of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation has been spent on brokering a new teachers contract that creates performance-based pay and opening new schools.

Joanne Rutherford’s first graders at Peshine Avenue Elementary School in Newark, N.J., start class by drawing constellations. The classroom is equipped with a smartboard and a fancy projector, but those weren't bought with the $100 million donated to the city's public schools in 2010 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, you won't find any of Zuckerberg's largess in Mrs. Rutherford's classroom. At least, not obviously.

“In some ways it’s less tangible," explains Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson*, "but in many ways, it’s a lot more systemic and a lot longer lasting.” Anderson says Zuckerberg’s money isn’t buying things, it’s changing how things are done.

“Most significant from our standpoint," she says, "has been the support that he and other philanthropists gave to achieve a breakthrough labor contract with the Newark Teacher’s Union.”

Yes, a labor contract. Some $50 million helped broker an agreement with the union to accept a new teacher evaluation system and pay based on performance.

Kim McLain, who heads the Foundation for Newark’s Future -- the group in charge of doling out Zuckerberg’s money -- says this wasn't dictated by Zuckerberg, but it fits with the vision behind the donation.  

“One of the things that we firmly believe in is that in order to have a really good educational system, it starts with the teacher in the classroom,” she says.

Zuckerberg’s gift has also been used to help open several new schools, including charter schools, and to create a centralized system for tracking student progress.  

This doesn’t mean that everyone in Newark is toasting the founder of Facebook.

“It’s an agenda about which I have serious doubts,” says Paul Tractenberg, founder of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers. He disagrees with the new approach, arguing that it will “weaken collective bargaining, weaken job security of teachers, [and] hold teachers accountable based largely on standardized test scores of their students.”

Superintendent Anderson says Newark’s underperforming schools need bold ideas and a break from the past.

“Private philanthropy can be a critical catalyst to remove systemic barriers that the system can’t remove," she says, because "the system is the problem sometimes.”

What will the changes mean for the first graders in Mrs. Rutherford’s class? It will be some time before these reforms can be judged on student preparedness and graduation. Like most investments, the returns aren’t instant.

Click here to see how the Foundation for Newark's Future has divied up Zuckerberg's $100 million donation so far.


*CORRECTION: The original article misspelled the name of Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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