New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker appeared on the Oprah show last Friday to accept a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone in New Jersey, told the New York Post that “the mayor has a very compelling vision about what should be done with the schools. He was able to convince Mark to be part of it.”
But will Zuckerberg’s first foray into philanthropic giving result in more money being thrown into the black hole of the Newark public school system, or will it prove to be money well-spent?
As Matt Ladner of the Goldwater Institute and I detail in our new paper on closing the achievement gap, public schools are drowning in money but failing to provide a quality education for students. While they don’t suffer from a lack of funding, school systems do suffer in most cases from an inability to better target their resources, often blocked by demands from public education unions.
For decades, education unions have stood in the way of any reforms that maximize the efficiency with which school dollars are spent. The unions’ primary concerns are protecting the employment interests of their members by securing lifetime job security for teachers and increasing funding for public school systems. In this sense, their interests should be understood as distinctly different from the interests of parents and students. A good example of this divergence of interests came last summer, when a principal in the New York City school system told the New Yorker that the American Federation of Teachers “would protect a dead body in the classroom.”
Education unions have opposed most attempts to reform the failed status quo, including proven reforms such as parental school choice, alternative teacher certification, and school accountability.
Which is why the only hope of success for Zuckerberg’s $100 million venture into large-scale philanthropy is if the money is used to fundamentally reform the existing broken system in Newark.
Early indications provide reason to believe that Mayor Booker may do just that. The New York Times reports that Governor Christie has asked Booker to create an agenda to turn around the failing school system:
Both men’s offices declined to comment on the arrangement. But the mayor, like the governor, favors a number of ideas usually promoted by conservatives, and often opposed by teachers’ unions, like charter schools—Newark now has a dozen—and tuition aid, otherwise known as vouchers.
The teachers unions are already drawing a line in the sand when it comes to what they deem to be an acceptable use of the new funds. The president of the Newark Teachers’ Union, Joseph Del Grosso, told the NYT: “We’re willing to change a lot of different things, but they have to not force anything on anyone, to talk about it. … Vouchers is not going to happen.”
Thankfully for Newark families, Governor Christie is not known for taking ultimatums from unions. Principled school reformers like Christie and Booker in New Jersey (and like Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Chancellor Joel Klein in New York, and former Governor Jeb Bush in Florida) have proven that when the interest of children and families are put first—not the interest of the entrenched status quo—significant improvements in student achievement are possible.
By standing up to the education unions and pushing a bold reform agenda that included school choice, transparency, and accountability, Governor Bush was able to put students in the Sunshine State on a performance trajectory almost unparalleled throughout the country. As a result of his reforms, Hispanic students in Florida now outpace or tie the statewide average in reading of all students in 31 states.
In New York City, Chancellor Klein’s reforms have resulted in similar progress, with the city now outpacing several statewide reading averages. Rhee’s bold reforms in the nation’s capital are having a significant impact on the low-performing school system. D.C. fourth-graders, while still below the national average, led the nation in improvement in reading on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Zuckerberg did well in choosing Newark, where two of just a handful of true education reform leaders across the country oversee policy. Let’s hope the $100 million does indeed turn out to be a gift to Newark students, put to use to truly reform the status quo that has failed them for so long. With Christie and Booker at the helm, it’s unlikely that this will be just another hundred-million dollars used to line the pockets of union leaders—making this a friend request New Jersey was wise in accepting.