On Tuesday, Checker Finn, president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and self-described “aging education reformer,” penned an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan offering “unsolicited advice” for their new education foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In his eloquent and charming letter, Finn advises them to resist the temptation to become embroiled in the foibles of government bureaucracy, embodied by the $100 million donation Zuckerberg made to Newark Public Schools (NPS) in 2010. Instead, Finn counsels Zuckerberg and Chan to give money in such a way as to benefit “democracy as an efficacious alternative to the bureaucratic state.”
Chris Cerf, superintendent of Newark Public Schools, responded to Finn on Wednesday and criticized the “otherwise thoughtful letter” because it is “marred by the false premise from which it starts.” Specifically, wrote Cerf, Finn buys into Dale Russakoff’s narrative in “The Prize” “hook, line and sinker” about the failure of the donation to bring about change in Newark. Cerf has previously questioned Russakoff’s account of the gift—in The 74, he contended Russakoff ignored “an overwhelming body of data, generalizing from the negatives, and treating the positives as incidental anecdote.”
Cerf challenges Finn’s assertion that the Zuckerberg gift, thoroughly entwined with government schools (for example, a big chunk of the money went to paying NPS teachers retroactively after a contract resolution that tied raises to teacher effectiveness) didn’t help Newark kids. Cerf argues in his piece that “the Zuckerberg gift made a massive difference in the lives of children in Newark, and continues to do so today.”
Cerf then lists the ways in which public education in Newark has improved, both in the traditional sector and the charter sector: a 10 percent increase in graduation rates, “twice as many African-American children are attending schools that beat the state average compared with 2011,” dramatic increases in school choice for parents, higher retention of high-performing teachers, and an award for integrating technology into classrooms. These successes, he says, belie Finn’s premise that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative should focus on “the singular ability to do things that government cannot or will not do.”
As someone who talks to Newark parents regularly, I can say the city’s educational climate has shifted dramatically since the Zuckerberg donation, especially regarding families’ personal investment in school choice. This weekend, for example, several reform organizations are sponsoring the first New Jersey Parent Summit. Tickets sold out quickly, a sign of Newark parents’ newly-empowered educational ambitions for their children.
Yes, mistakes were made with the money, but the educational progress made in Newark has been unambiguous. And I think the Zuckerberg gift, at the very least, jumpstarted it.