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How Zuckerberg's school reform for N.J. went awry

Five years ago this month, Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, and Chris Christie announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that the young founder of Facebook was pledging $100 million to transform the debilitated Newark school system into “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

Five years ago this month, Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, and Chris Christie announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that the young founder of Facebook was pledging $100 million to transform the debilitated Newark school system into "a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation."

It was a spectacular kickoff, with extravagant expectations. In his first act as a philanthropist, the then-26-year-old Zuckerberg was setting out to revolutionize urban education, much as he had reshaped global communication from his Harvard dorm room. As Booker laid out the plan, the then-Newark mayor and New Jersey Gov. Christie would use Zuckerberg's largesse to bring all the ideas of the national education reform movement to Newark: Vastly expand charter schools, close failing district schools, replace the weakest teachers with top talent from around the country, relax tenure protections, and build a state-of-the-art data system through which to hold everyone accountable for student performance.

Within five years, Booker promised, they would emerge with a model for turning around any failing urban school district-one that Zuckerberg then could "scale up" with philanthropy in one city after the next, solving the education crisis in urban America.

The five years are up, the vast majority of Zuckerberg's money has been spent, along with a second $100 million in matching funds, and there is no model for solving the crisis of failing schools in Newark or anywhere else. Booker and Christie have moved on — Booker to the U.S. Senate and Christie to the presidential campaign trail. And Zuckerberg has quietly stopped looking for the next city school system to transform (Philadelphia was once on his short list). He and his wife Priscilla Chan are refocusing their philanthropy on underserved communities close to home, in the Bay Area. They say they want to know the desires and complex needs of communities and children before seeking to repair their education systems.

This level of humility has not been a calling card of the education reform movement. Indeed, Booker arranged to announce Zuckerberg's mega-gift on Oprah without informing the residents of Newark in advance. Parents of the city's 40,000 students learned of the revolution coming to their schools at the same moment as Oprah's national television audience. No one who had taught in the Newark Public Schools was at the table when the reform agenda was formulated. "We know what works," Booker and Christie said at the time, echoing a mantra of the reform movement.

Of the $200 million spent in Newark, almost $60 million subsidized the expansion of charter schools, doubling their total enrollment to almost 40 percent of Newark children by 2017. Students in most charters significantly outperform their district counterparts, so this is a notable improvement, although district schools serve higher proportions of children who don't speak English, have special needs, or live in extreme poverty.

But the promise of the Zuckerberg gift was to "flip a district," in Booker's words, not just to expand charter schools. And the district schools, which still educate a large majority of Newark children, are in financial distress, largely as a result of the exodus of money and students to charters. More than a third have been closed, restructured, consolidated, or otherwise overhauled — and hundreds of custodians, security guards, and clerks laid off — in an effort to make ends meet. The upheaval sparked convulsive political opposition, as in many cities where the closing of neighborhood schools fueled grassroots anger and a sense of loss of control.

Meanwhile, the fiscal crisis is far from over. A fund for emergencies — $40 million when the reform effort began — is now empty. One week into the 2015-16 year, district schools were instructed to freeze millions of dollars in planned spending. Previous cuts had claimed social workers, counselors, after-school programs, and numerous art and music teachers.

It is important to point out that Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker targeted Newark because the status quo was failing children severely. Fewer than 40 percent of students were reading at grade level. Of those who graduated high school, 90 percent were unprepared to enter the local community college without first taking remedial classes. Almost 20 percent of children already were in charter schools because parents were giving up on the traditional system.

Other than expanding charter schools, the reformers' main prescription for change was to improve the management systems in the school district. "MZ's money is not going to the classroom," a senior aide to Booker wrote in an email early on. They spent $20 million on consultants. They spent almost $50 million on a new teachers' contract that tied pay increases to teacher performance and awarded merit bonuses to teachers with the highest ratings. They posited that tighter accountability and performance incentives, instituted from the top down, would translate into higher student achievement. But they haven't, at least not yet.

In a city wracked with extreme poverty, violence, and family instability, the lesson of the highest performing charter organizations is that district schools need far more resources at the classroom level, not in the central bureaucracy. Although the state has controlled the Newark district for 20 years, it has done little to rectify the imbalance. While the Newark district spends almost $20,000 per student, less than half of that reaches individual schools.

The best charter organizations, which start out with less money per pupil, get almost half again as much money to their schools as the district does. Spark Academy, a KIPP charter elementary school, has two teachers in every K-3 classroom, plus a tutor for every grade. It also has three social workers. They provide weekly therapy for 70 children, who need emotional support in order to learn from even the best teachers. Spark students far outperform their district counterparts, but the school's leaders say this would not be possible if they didn't have resources to meet the needs of individual students.

Had the Newark reformers listened from the outset to parents and teachers, they would've known that education in the nation's most distressed cities needs support and attention from the bottom up as well as the top down.

Dale Russakoff will talk about her book "The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Admission is free.