What money can’t buy: Facebook happiness in Newark?



By 11/04/2011

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Reading  the New York Times update on the progress of the $100 million Mark “Facebook” Zuckerberg donation to the Newark public schools this morning, I couldn’t help but think of the time our superintendent convened a meeting of parents to announce a $20,000 grant for a “Parent University” project.  Wow!  It might as well have been $100 million.  There were quite a few ooohs and awwws around the table.  And, of course, many congratulations to our leader for bringing home some bacon.  But the question was – as it is for Gregory Taylor, the president and chief executive of the Zuckerberg Foundation for Newark’s Future – How do we spend the money?  (Note to Jay Greene:  Close your eyes. This is not pretty.)

I can’t recall all the suggestions for our 20k Parent University grant money, but I do remember raising my own Milton Friedman hand and suggesting that we give the bucks to parents, in $100 and $500 scholarship grants.  They could use the money, I suggested, to buy books or computers or even hiring tutors and babysitters.  I did some quick math and figured that the $20,000, handed out this way, could help dozens of parents.

“Can’t do that,” said the super.  “The grant won’t allow us to just hand out money.”

What the grant did allow – and this is where the money finally went – was to pay for a community “play day” on the football field. Games, brochures, games, and brochures – and hot dogs. A couple hundred people came, played, ate hot dogs, and … Well, I have no idea what happened after that.  But I know that local tent-installers, food vendors, clowns, and the folks who do those blow-up bounce-around gyms were all happy.   And the money was gone.  Yes! Parent University!

Ah, philanthropy!

I recall another time, when a friend from the nearby community college called to say he had a million dollar “mentoring grant” and wanted me to help gather up parent mentors for the program.  “Neat,” I said, “Finally, the poor parents can get paid for their work.”

“No, no,” he countered.  “The parents have to be volunteers.”

I didn’t have to ask where the million bucks was going.

So, Mr. Gregory Taylor, with your $382,000 salary, what will you do with $200 million?  (The city of Newark is supposed to match Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar for dollar and so far has gathered $48 million, according to the Times.) Pay a few people lots of money?  We know that the foundation has already given out $7 million (what could I do with that money!)  to 20 grantees to help start some schools, expand Teach for America, and establish a parent call center. And we know that you are going to present to your board suggestions for spending more money on, according to the Times, five “broad priorities: early childhood education, teaching quality/principal leadership, school options, community engagement and out-of-school youth.”

Okay. But my hand is still raised: Why can’t we just give it to the parents?  Pass it out, Robin Hood-style.  The district has 40,000 students – even if we give $100 million to the smart administrators, the other $100 million can be given to 40,000 students and is….. well, $2,500 per student.  Can you imagine what a parent could do with that money to help his or her child get better educated?  Buy a complete set of The History of US. Or What Every First- (Second, Third, etc.) Grader Should Know? The Illiad? The Odyssey? A math tutor – two math tutors!  A new computer!  Two new computers! And if only the poor kids – about 25,000 in Newark are free and reduced lunch – got these Zuckerberg scholarships, that would be almost $5,000 per student.  That’s a year in a good Catholic school. Not bad.

I like Mr. Taylor’s motto: “the urgency we have matches the urgency people have for their kids.”  But if that’s the case, get the parents the money. Pronto.  If we respect the urgency of their educational aspirations, let’s respect the wisdom of their educational choices. Let’s give them choices – the kinds of choices that their well-heeled suburban brethren have: the choices that money will buy.  (There are twelve charter schools in Newark, and theArchdiocese of Newark has 84 elementary schools and 32 high schools. A school voucher law for New Jersey is still in the works; it would provide even more choice.)

As I suggested in my Follow the Money post in August, “our philanthropist reformers” may just be “responding to what has been the outsized influence over the system exercised by private teacher unions, textbook and testing companies, and a web of high-powered lobbyists representing all manner of industry associations.” But the real reformers will do everything they can to effect a paradigm shift: from the oligopoly of top-down decision-making to the boot-strap choices made by thousands of concerned individual parents.

–Peter Meyer




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