News and analysis
September 08, 2015

Learning From Zuckerberg’s ‘Naïve’ $100-Million Mistake

Gary He for Facebook

Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker (seated, center) is a gifted fundraiser with a flair for conveying the drama of life in the city's streets, according to a new book about the 2010 gift of $100 million for Newark's public schools from Mark Zuckerberg (seated, second from the right).

In September 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker joined Mark Zuckerberg to announce the billionaire Facebook founder’s first major move in philanthropy: a $100-million, five-year gift to improve public education in Newark.

They set out to raise $100 million in matching donations, expand charter schools, and secure a new teacher contract that rewarded results rather than longevity.

Today, a majority of Newark students remain in underperforming and increasingly cash-strapped public schools. Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Christie, and Mr. Booker have largely moved on.

Veteran journalist Dale Russakoff, who followed the effort from the onset, recently published The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? The book, the most complete accounting of Mr. Zuckerberg’s philanthropy, details how good intentions were hampered by a lack of community consensus building. And the gift, large as it was, proved insufficient to overcome the grave social problems that afflict Newark’s public-school children.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Russakoff discussed how Mr. Booker courted the country’s wealthiest millennial, why local context matters, and what philanthropists need to know about what transpired in Newark.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Mark Zuckerberg’s gift was by no means the first time philanthropy set its sights on education reform. Did you find that the central characters were familiar with history, like the 1993, $500-million Annenberg Challenge?

I have never thought about whether Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie themselves were aware of it, but I think that everyone circling around them was aware of it. What was interesting was so many people said, "Well, I have seen this movie before. This sounds like the Annenberg grant."

You might ask, "Why didn’t they think more about the Annenberg gift and what went wrong with it?" But I think they felt they were in a new era with bigger and more promising ideas. They felt so confident. The mantra was, "We know what works, and we are going to use this money to advance what works." I think they felt immune to the problems that Annenberg had.

What is it about Cory Booker that has wealthy individuals digging into their pockets?

He is such a gifted speaker and spinner of tales about the real hard life of the streets in urban America, particularly in Newark. I think people in the community of billionaires who listen to him and get excited by him feel like he is coming from a world they don’t know, and yet he seems so much like them that they trust him.

There is a character in my book, Clement Price, one of the elders of Newark. He said, "I think that white people love Cory Booker because they think he is what they would be like if they were black." In their view, he can go places and commune with people whom they can’t, and he can bring back their stories.

Is his fundraising talent innate or learned?

He has a natural talent. From the minute he showed up in Newark, he was drawing the attention of national television, national magazines, attention that the U.S. senators and even the governor couldn’t always attract. I think it was partly because he was a young African-American son of the generation of the Civil Rights Movement. Here he was coming up with ideas that sounded like the next generation of ideas about how to help urban America. And they were different. They were borrowing from the private sector as well as government. He sounded almost like a neoconservative on some issues. And there was something fascinating about that.

He became a very, very skilled marketer of himself. It certainly suited his political career, but it also suited his philanthropic fundraising.

Zuckerberg and his fellow philanthropists wanted reform in Newark to serve as a national "proof point" to be replicated elsewhere. Did that pursuit blind them to critical, local realities?

So often they were looking for a solution that fit national problems and not looking closely at Newark as its own ecosystem. That led to this emphasis on management systems as opposed to problems that children were facing everyday in classrooms.

The problem is that children in Newark live with unusually extreme poverty, they witness an extreme amount of violence, and there is a lot of instability in their lives, and all of these things become learning issues. If you’re not focusing like a laser on that, you are really missing what children need in Newark.

Some in Newark found the work of Zuckerberg and Booker patronizing — that this was education reform being done to them rather than with them. Is there a way a major donor could do similar work and avoid that tripwire? Is it inevitable?

It is kind of built into the formula. I know in Newark the local philanthropies felt almost the way the community did — this whole effort was being imposed by people who really didn’t know Newark. They were amazed that they didn’t consult them because there are philanthropies in Newark that have been on the ground for generations working with schools and could have been extremely helpful in targeting the money in a different way but also in helping to introduce this effort to the community.

If there could have been a prelude where the billionaires could have really studied the city from the perspective of the people in it and the people who were going to be affected by their changes, I think it is very possible that there could have been much more of a united front. It wouldn’t have been outsiders arriving with a prescription for all that ails Newark. It would have been something that people who were respected in the community could have been a spokesman for.

Some might read your book and conclude Zuckerberg was naïve to think his gift would deliver substantive change. But you seem to be a bit kinder with him than that. Why?

He was so naïve. He was naïve to think $100 million, or even twice that, was going to transform a district that spent $1 billion in a year. Beyond that, he bought Cory Booker’s pitch that "with this money, I will be as committed to this as I was to crime in my fist term. This will be my number-one priority. And we know what works."

But his thoughts were not knockoffs of other people’s ideas. I thought it was interesting he had focused on the need to raise the status of teachers in the U.S. Like so many philanthropists, the big idea came from personal experience. He was watching his girlfriend, and now his wife, experience life as a teacher.

The second thing that made me feel that the story did not end with him being naïve is that he learned from what happened in Newark. He decided that he would, from now on, not go to faraway places to implant ideas from outside and try to solve education through a business model. He was looking close to home to understand what a community really wants and really needs and be so much more knowledgeable and community-focused.

What do philanthropists and foundations that spend on education need to know about what transpired in Newark?

You can’t know the community well enough. Whatever great ideas — and I think some of these ideas are great ideas — that philanthropists have about how to solve problems in a particular community, there is no way they know as much as the local people who have been dealing with the problems.

I’m not talking about just a mother of 12 who deals with poverty, although that is an important perspective to have. In Newark, there were so many teachers and principals who were really knowledgeable and excellent and skilled. It is not like nobody in Newark wanted change. There was a huge consensus that the district school needs to improve. Those people weren’t consulted.

It is not just that it is rude and disrespectful, it is just not smart. Those people know a lot that is going to improve the approach, whatever it is. If you are not talking to them, you are missing out.

Send an email to Megan O’Neil.