NEWARK, N.J. – New Jersey has already thrown enough money at its largest school district to make it among the nation's best-funded, yet it remains in the pits. Can a $100 million gift from the founder of Facebook really turn it around?
The money hasn't even arrived, but it's already creating a buzz in Newark, where three out of five third-graders can't read and write at their grade level. Barely half the students who begin high school manage to graduate, and most of them do so without passing the state's standard graduation exam.
"This money makes us feel good about ourselves, that we're being noticed," said 15-year-old Estephany Balbuena, a student at Newark's Arts High School. "There's a bad reputation of Newark, but it's not true. Some of us are successful."
The three players seeking to turn the windfall into a renaissance — a 26-year-old Internet wunderkind, a Democratic mayor described by Oprah Winfrey as a "rock star" and a Republican governor drawing criticism and acclaim for his budget-slashing ways — announced their plans Friday on Winfrey's talk show.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he would donate $100 million worth of Facebook stock over the next five years through his new Startup: Education foundation. Gov. Chris Christie said he would give Mayor Cory Booker a major role in overseeing any major changes in the district, which the state took over in 1995 because of persistently low test scores and wasteful spending.
Booker pledged to raise an additional $150 million for the effort.
"What's the alternative? Is it to continue what we're doing now, with nearly a 50 percent dropout rate?" Christie said. "I'm much more willing to take risks and take chances when it comes to this."
Zuckerberg paid a visit to Newark on Saturday, spending time with Booker and holding a press conference with the mayor and the governor at a downtown hotel. The three were short on specifics, saying that a key first step of the process would be getting community input on changes that need to be made.
Recounting how his grandmother had been a teacher and his parents had worked hard to give himself and his three sisters a good education, Zuckerberg said he hoped to do the same, not just for thousands of Newark students, but to help create a new model for successful public education that could be replicated nationwide. He dismissed questions about the timing of his donation, which coincides with the release of a movie about Facebook that portrays him in a less than flattering light.
"This (donation) is something that's going to play out for years," he said.
New Jersey's Supreme Court has found in rulings over the past two decades that urban schools were underfunded and ordered the government to fund the most impoverished districts as well as its most affluent suburban schools. The court has also pushed the state to spend billions to upgrade school buildings in cities and provide free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.
While some areas have seen gains, most of those schools still fall far short on measures such as standardized tests and graduation rates.
Money alone doesn't seem to be the answer, but money is what wealthy funders can offer.
Through his foundation, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — like Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout — awarded $290 million in education grants in November 2009, including $100 million to the school system that includes Tampa, Fla., and $90 million for the Memphis, Tenn., district. The foundation has also given $150 million to the New York City schools over the past eight years.
Most of the funding in New York has gone toward the creation of smaller schools that aim to boost graduation rates for the most academically challenged students; several teachers also participate in a foundation-led training program. One recent study of Gates' efforts found that graduation rates in those schools had improved.
The Star-Ledger of Newark reported Saturday that Gates, among a roster of current and new donors, had expressed interest in donating to the Newark initiative. Booker would not confirm the donation but said several donors had made pledges since Zuckerberg's announcement, and that he would release details soon.
Florida's Hillsborough County district, the nation's eighth-largest, is designing a way to pay teachers, in part, by using a system that includes measuring gains with standardized tests, along with observations by principals and evaluations by other teachers. The money is also being used to train veteran teachers to mentor others.
The evaluation program is just beginning, so it's too early to tell how it will work, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. The district, though, has gotten positive comments from new teachers about the mentoring program, she said.
Similar measures are under way in Memphis, where school officials are working out how to identify, reward and retain effective teachers.
"We are seeing results of our plan," said Superintendent Kriner Cash. "We are right on target."
Education advocates in New Jersey call for similar steps to be taken in Newark, where more money is spent per pupil than any other city in a state that ranks near the top in per-pupil funding.
Newark was once booming, with its 1940s population of about 430,000 working in good-paying jobs in the teeming textile and manufacturing industries. But after World War II, the city began a postwar descent into racial unrest, white flight, crime and corruption. Its population suffered — it's now down to around 275,000 — along with its schools.
Few steps on Newark's path are clear beyond hiring a new superintendent. On her show, Winfrey endorsed current Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has implemented changes popular among school reform advocates. Rhee wasn't available to comment to The Associated Press.
Joseph De Pierro, education dean at New Jersey's Seton Hall University, said his advice would be for Newark first to consider hiring back at least some of the educators laid off this year.
Students say they've seen the effects, with some sports teams eliminated and classes growing.
"There are now 40 students in my math class; it's suffocating," said Balbuena, the Arts High student.
De Pierro would also find a way to pay the best teachers more and buy better equipment and materials. And he noted that better training would be key.
"It would not be the standard kind of stuff after school and in the summer," he said. "It would be something that takes place in their classroom when they're teaching."
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark-based group that is pushing to broaden school choice in New Jersey, said some of the steps he would take in Newark wouldn't cost much.
For instance, he would give charter schools unused space in traditional public schools and set up virtual learning programs in which the best teachers could come into contact — online, at least — with more children. He said he would also look for a way to pay top teachers more and exempt them from union work rules.
Any major changes might require buy-in from union members who have vehemently opposed Christie's school cuts. Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso said he hopes the decision makers will consult with teachers about their plans — but said he is excited about the gift.
Christie had choice words Saturday for the unions and others he said have been an obstacle to education reforms in New Jersey.
"We're about yes, they're about no. We're about tomorrow, they're about yesterday. We're about the kids; they're about their paychecks," he said.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for students in the state's poorest cities, said he worries the new measures could undo the progress that's already been made. The city has developed one of the nation's best early childhood education programs, and middle and high schools are improving, he said.
"The question is how to make sure this money is used to enhance the reforms that have been made and not to undermine them," he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Samantha Henry and David Porter in Newark, Angelique Yack in Philadelphia, Nafeesa Syeed in Washington, Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., and Amy Westfeldt in New York.