Throwing money away on our poorest schools

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

The 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 came a week 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 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 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.

The teachers union employed Baraka's 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 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 in philanthropy was going broke."

That's not likely to change: Three weeks ago, 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.

— Miami Herald

Throwing money away on our poorest schools 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 5:01pm]

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