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Zuckerberg’s Second Try on School Reform: Bigger Bucks, Smaller Goals

Zuckerberg with his wife, Priscilla Chan, at Allen & Co.’s annual media and technology conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2013

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Zuckerberg with his wife, Priscilla Chan, at Allen & Co.’s annual media and technology conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2013

Mark Zuckerberg is feeling the education-reform urge again. The Facebook (FB) chief executive officer announced a $120 million contribution on Friday to improve Bay Area schools. “The world’s most innovative community shouldn’t also be a home for struggling public schools,” Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, wrote in the San Jose Mercury News.

The first $5 million will go to the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto/Belle Haven, the Redwood City School District, and “several other high need communities” in San Francisco to pay for new computers, Internet connectivity, teacher training, “and parent outreach to make these a really valuable addition to the learning experience.”
The most interesting part of their op-ed, however, was what the couple had to say about Zuckerberg’s earlier $100 million gift to the struggling public school system in Newark, N.J. That intervention hasn’t gone well. Still, the Facebook co-founder tried to put the best possible spin on it:

“In Newark, a lot of the work we started is still underway, but we’ve already seen some good results. Newark now has the leading teacher contract in the country that was developed with teachers to reward good performance. New district and charter schools run by organizations with a track record of success have started, as well as 50 new principals. Across the district, the graduation rate has grown by 10%. It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.”

The article neglected to mention that the reform effort Zuckerberg spearheaded—with help from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator—has become mired in politics. Cami Anderson, the schools superintendent whom they recruited from New York to fix the ailing Newark district, has struggled to build support for her reform efforts in the city, which includes closing failing schools and laying off substandard teachers.

Ras Baraka, the most vocal antagonist of the new superintendent, won the mayoral election last month and vowed to get rid of her. It’s not clear how, as the state of New Jersey controls the district. But Baraka and his allies in the city’s teachers union can make her job even more difficult.

Zuckerberg has learned something from his New Jersey experience: how to set limited expectations. In Newark four years ago, he talked about turning the city’s schools around—a Herculean task if ever there were one. He and Chan have set a much lower bar in the Bay Area, starting out with a small initial investment and a more discreet goal. “Today’s announcement is just a small step towards the change we need to achieve in our community and our country,” they wrote, “but it’s another step in a journey we expect to spend the rest of our lives on.”

Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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