In My Opinion

The pitiful story of Newark’s school system

Samuel Johnson called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience. When an Internet billionaire announces a plan to give away another $100 million to a second public school district after the first fritters it away without any results, I’d say its more like the triumph of delusion over the dead certainty that teachers’ unions and educational bureaucrats are a bottomless pit of greed.

Last week’s announcement that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are donating $120 million to poor school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area coincidentally came a day or two after the publication of a long and horrifying piece in The New Yorker about what happened to their first attempt to wash away public education’s problems with a flood of cash.

Four years ago, Zuckerberg and his wife, convinced that the trouble with public education was that society doesn’t value it enough, put their money where their liberal ideals were, donated $100 million (a sum quickly matched by other philanthropists) to the school district in Newark, N.J, one of America’s most abysmal educational systems.

The result might be titled No Consultant, Bureaucrat or Union Goon Left Behind. Consultants took $20 million right off the top, routinely charging $1,000 a day for services like public relations, human resources and other stuff that’s been around since the beginning of corporate time but which apparently had to be reinvented for Newark.

Fifty new principals were hired in a district that already had a ratio of one administrator for every six students, double the state average. (Nearly a third of Newark’s educational bureaucrats were clerks, four times the rate of other New Jersey districts. “Even some clerks had clerks,” The New Yorker noted in awe.)

Meanwhile, the principals already on board fought like demons to keep the district from closing their failing schools, even as students streamed out to enroll in new charter schools set up with Zuckerberg’s money.

One of those principals was the chief enemy of Newark’s attempt to reform its schools — Ras Baraka, the race-hustling head of the not-worthy-of-the-name Central High School. (Just 5 percent of its graduates score well enough on entrance exams to get into college.) To be fair, Baraka had little time in his schedule for education; he was also a full-time city councilman, taking home more than $200,000 a year from his city jobs.

Baraka — whose father was the radical poet, Amiri Baraka — told his students that Zuckerberg’s reformers were deliberately flunking them so Central High could be closed down and the charter schools reap a bounty. To parents, he preached that the city’s schools were being “colonized” by outsiders (read: whites). And anyway, he added, nothing could be done to fix Newark’s schools until poverty was wiped out. You do the math on when that might be.

Baraka’s most rapturuous audience was the school district’s teachers, whose union employed his colonization rhetoric to rally public support for extortionate payoffs in return for teachers’ grudging acceptance of a few of the reforms.

The union consented to some slight restrictions on tenure (which makes it almost impossible to for school districts to fire incompetent teachers) and it agreed that future raises would be based on merit rather than years on the job. In return, it won $31 million in back pay for two years in which the district couldn’t afford raises. (That sounds reasonable unless you know that nearly 600 Newark teachers already earn $92,000 a year or more.)

In all, labor expenses ate up $90 million. And the teachers insisted that any layoffs be based only on seniority, which means that the reformers’ new hires will be the first to go, while the old guard that had failed so resolutely (Newark’s overall high-school graduation rate: 54 percent) was protected.

The bottom line, The New Yorker reported wondrously: “Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and $200 million dollars in philanthropy was going broke.” That’s not likely to change: Last week, with enthusiastic support from the teachers’ union, Baraka was elected Newark’s mayor. “Today, we told them that the people of Newark are not for sale!” he shouted at his victory party. After seeing the way Zuckerberg got fleeced, I doubt there are many buyers anyway.

Footnote: In that quote from The New Yorker about the school district going broke, “billion” is not a typo. With a $1 billion annual appropriation from the state, the Newark schools were already among the best-funded in America even before Zuckerberg came to town.

One lesson that they didn’t need any help from philanthropists in teaching is that you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">FANCY FOOTWEAR:</span> Gov. Rick Scott’s custom-made boots showing the five flags that have flown over Florida.


    Crist needs to fire up black voters

    Is Charlie Crist in danger of pulling an Alex Sink by narrowly losing to Rick Scott?



    Sanford’s ongoing saga with himself

    As a South Carolinian, it befalls me to examine the peculiarities afflicting our former governor and now-congressman Mark Sanford, who, contrary to decorum and taste, continues to demand attention.



    Can Marina Silva shock the status quo?

    A few months ago, incumbent president Dilma Rousseff appeared to be coasting toward reelection despite a flagging economy. However, in August, political maverick Marina Silva was thrust into the spotlight of Brazil’s presidential campaign after the death of her running mate. Pledging to reform the country’s dysfunctional politics and jumpstart the economy with free-market reforms, Silva has surged to a tie with Rousseff in recent polls.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category