(Another) Cautionary Tale for School Reformers

May 15, 2014

Ras Baraka, the winner of this week’s special election for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, staked a big part of his campaign on his opposition to the school-reform effort backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Under former mayor Cory Booker, who recently decamped to the U.S. Senate, Mr. Zuckerberg’s foundation had poured $100 million into a sweeping attempt to overhaul the city’s public education system. His gift drew an equal amount from other national donors, all deposited in the newly formed Foundation for Newark’s Future. The colossal philanthropic experiment has gone on for a little over three years, so far with limited evidence of success and swelling opposition. Judging from Mr. Baraka’s campaign speeches and the decisiveness of his victory, it seems unlikely to go on much longer.


Philanthropic projects rarely face so explicit a public referendum, and the message of this one, at least on the surface, is far from encouraging for foundations working on K-12 education. Wholesale school reform has not had a happy run in recent philanthropy, at least since 2000, when the half-billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge (launched by the former ambassador and publishing magnate Walter Annenberg) ended with results that were widely judged to be disappointing or worse. A couple of years later, when the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation canceled its school-reform program, then-president Michael Bailin told Philanthropy News Digest that “It was hard to tell what our dollars were doing, or, for that matter, what anybody’s dollars were doing. It’s hard to ever put enough money into a large public system that will allow you to gain sufficient leverage to actually push change and make some things happen.”


In some ways, the Newark story echoed some of the frustrations of the Annenberg experience. Its reforms were mostly hatched at the top levels of government and amid a network of elite consultancies. (“I don’t care about the community criticism,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who with Mayor Booker was a prime backer of the program. “We run the school district in Newark, not them.”) The program’s heroic ambitions, and consequently the rhetoric of its promises, created unrealistic dreams of swift improvement. The failure to meet these outsized expectations allowed opponents to paint a picture of fumbling and dilettantism that was arguably unfair. The whole deflating experience was then summed up in a devastating New Yorker article — published the day before the mayoral election.


Mr. Zuckerberg has not said whether he will continue to support school reform in Newark, and it’s possible that he and Mayor-elect Baraka can work out some amended approach. The incoming mayor, for his part, is no defender of the status quo and privately endorses many elements of the Zuckerberg initiative. The struggle to improve Newark’s low-performing school system may well continue in some altered form.


But philanthropy will have suffered yet another black eye in the quest for big, overall improvements in public education. Large foundations with long time horizons and a high tolerance for risk and setbacks will probably press ahead. But newcomers like Mr. Zuckerberg — who admitted knowing little about philanthropy and nothing about Newark when he made his commitment — may be slower to step into the fray. And there are a lot of newcomers out there, brimming with recent wealth, youthful energy, and a desire to make a beneficial mark on society. It would be a shame if they concluded that there is no place for their philanthropy in the quest for better schools. A shame, but perhaps not a surprise.


[Photograph: Flickr user Elizabeth Albert]


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Tony Proscio


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