Newark Fights Over $100 Million Facebook Donation For Schools

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million contribution to Newark, N.J. public schools has lately drawn a reaction very different from the standing ovation received when the donation announcement was made on Oprah Winfrey's talk show last September.

Zuckerberg told Winfrey he chose to invest in Newark because he believes in Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to improve the district's public schools, but the city's residents are quickly losing faith.

In the months following Zuckerberg's announcement, the community outlook shifted from excited and hopeful to outraged and suspicious. Thousands attended spring school board meetings to protest Booker's reform plan, which parents say was presented without consulting key players and stakeholders -- like parents, according to NPR.

These reports are contrary to Booker's initial statement on Winfrey's show last September.

"We've been talking for quite some time about creating a bold new paradigm for educational excellence in the country to show the way, to put the people of the city of Newark really in the driver seat and the focal point and to work to get all the assets and resources we need to give to them to succeed."

The main concern, NPR reports, is a part of Booker's agenda that plans to close under-performing schools and physically relocate charter schools to share the same building as public schools. Community members worry that the plan is too focused on charter schools versus already struggling community schools, and that the privatized sector will swallow too much of the Zuckerberg gift. But Booker assured NPR that would not be the case.

"The focus of the Zuckerberg grant is not to fund charter schools, it will be going towards traditional district schools, so that's just a falsehood."

Still more questions exist about where the money is really going. Chris Cerf is the new acting state commissioner of Education and tops the ladder for Newark schools. Cerf sits on the committee that Booker created to double Zuckerberg's donation -- they raised $43 million by March -- and is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. Newark residents are accusing Booker of spending $1 million of the Facebook gift on Cerf’s firm to survey district parents about what they want from education reform.

Cerf's peers on the board include venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, leading more to question whether those at the helm of Newark's education reform are taking a for-profit approach, especially since Gov. Christie early this month put several private companies in charge of five under-performing schools in Camden, N.J.

Meanwhile, some Newark schools are taking reform into their own hands. Central High School, considered an under-performing school, improved High School Proficiency Assessment scores in English and math by 32.5 percent and 25.9 percent, respectively. The sharp improvement was the result of a planned school-wide effort made possible by a grant from the state.