Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made national news in 2010 when he announced his $100 million grant to Newark public schools on an Oprah Winfrey show with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. But as a sign of things to come, those with the most at stake in the Newark schools — teachers, parents and students — were not informed before the announcement.
Five years later, it has come to light that millions of those Facebook dollars went to consultants and charter schools through a “reform” movement that has operated with little transparency or accountability.
In the name of so-called “choice,” neighborhood schools were eliminated in favor of a citywide lottery for all public schools and certain charters. Numerous public schools were closed or consolidated as charter schools opened or expanded, aided by Zuckerberg’s millions. And in this city where many residents do not own cars, students are now no longer guaranteed a place in schools near their homes. Busing is in place for the first time.
The leaders behind the reform plan dubbed “One Newark” will be familiar to many New Yorkers who recall the administration of former Chancellor Joel Klein.
Christopher Cerf, who was Klein’s deputy, served as New Jersey education commissioner during the height of the disruption to the Newark district. His role was key since Newark has been a state-run district for 20 years. Cami Anderson, the superintendent for alternative education under Klein, was Cerf’s pick as Newark superintendent.
Charter schools in Newark now enroll an estimated 35 percent of the city’s public school students. The fast growth of these publicly funded charters has contributed to a $50 million funding deficit in district schools, said John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union.
“There’s a lack of basic resources,” Abeigon said. “After-school programs, music, art, attendance counselors, teacher training, parent and community liaisons — all that an urban district needs to be successful — have all been cut back.” Many in the community, including students, rose up in outrage against the dismantling of the school district.
“The people of Newark want their schools back,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the city teachers union, wrote to the governor in early 2014. “They don’t want the One Newark plan.”
Mounting dissatisfaction prompted sit-ins at district headquarters and street protests, leading to Anderson’s departure this past June. Community frustration over the wholesale disruption in the district also played a role in the 2014 election of a new mayor, Ras Baraka, a former city councilman and high school principal.
Baraka and Christie announced in late June they had reached an agreement to return Newark schools to local control. But many in the community were appalled when Christie then appointed Cerf, who had left his state post in 2014, as the new chief of Newark schools.
“We’ll get local control back, but what will the district look like?” said Newark parent leader Daryn Martin. “They’ve devastated the community.” Martin was arrested and banned from the schools in 2014 after posting fliers critical of One Newark in a school building.
Journalist Dale Russakoff recently chronicled the fallout from the Facebook gift in her book, “The Prize,” concluding, “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark.”
Marion Bolden, a Newark educator for 40 years and superintendent from 1999 to 2008, has watched the district’s dismantling with dismay.
“It’s the audacity of power and money,” Bolden said. In her last year as superintendent, she noted, the Schott Foundation for Public Education listed Newark as one of the top 10 best-performing large districts for black males as high school graduation rates began to rise. “We were on an upward trajectory, when we had the resources,” Bolden said. But, to reformers, she said, “it’s a privatization model they want.”
Junius Williams, a longtime community leader and public school advocate in Newark, said there was a 10-year period when funding flowed to Newark due to historic state court decisions, lifting urban school funding to suburban levels. Christie changed that funding formula in 2009. “Charter schools became the answer,” Williams said.
Booker, meanwhile, has moved on to become a U.S. senator while Christie spends much of his time on his presidential campaign.
Those in Newark’s schools are left to pick up the pieces.
“I see my teachers all the time, in the street or at the supermarket,” said Bolden. “They say, ‘Can you believe what they’ve done to our schools?’”