Fremont High School is less than an hour’s drive from the Palo Alto, California, home of Facebook billionaire couple Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, but it might as well be on another planet.
This is what Zuckerberg and Chan are confronting with their $120 million donation to Oakland and other San Francisco Bay Area public school systems, which they announced Thursday.
A short stride away from East Oakland’s Industrial Boulevard and its thriving sex trade, Fremont suffers some of the Bay Area’s lowest test scores and highest dropout rates, not to mention the occasional flare-up of gang-related violence.
The situation at Oakland’s 87 public schools is so dire that enrollment has declined by about 1,000 students a year since 2000 as families pull their children out while troubled and neglected youths languish in a system that nearly went bankrupt in 2009.
This isn’t Zuckerberg’s first foray into fixing troubled public schools. In 2010, flanked by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark’s then-Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg announced on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that he would give $100 million in matching funds to fix Newark’s troubled schools.
Almost immediately, money came pouring in from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and hedge fund donors to unlock Zuckerberg’s matching funds.
The money began to flow out of the Foundation for Newark’s Future and into dozens of programs. Grants were dished for projects like an all-girls’ K-12 school scheduled to open this year, and to establish a citywide open enrollment system to allow parents greater choice in what schools their children will attend.
Since then, Zuckerberg has had learned a hard lesson in just how difficult it can be to effect changes in public education.
While Booker and Zuckerberg were working out their plans with the help of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Christie and Booker were implementing their own more controversial reform plan for the city public schools. Not only did the governor and mayor want to reach out to private donors, the plan included a measure to shut down some poorly performing public schools and replace them with private charter schools that would be funded with what became known locally as “Facebook money.”
Community and union organizers went on the offensive, accusing city officials of colluding with private donors to dictate the future of the city’s youth and bust the teachers union.
Critics argued that the charter school system diverts funds away from public education, which gives charter schools better resources. Defenders of the shift have needed only to point to low-performing schools to argue that any alternative would be better for parents choosing which school to send their children.
Zuckerberg’s $100 million goodwill gesture wound up entangling him and his wife in New Jersey education politics. And his initiative has been accused by some as being too reliant on outside consultants and too secretive about its plans.
In 2012, a group of concerned parents and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city for access to email exchanges among Zuckerberg, Booker and others to know more about how Zuckerberg’s money was being spent. In 2012 the emails were made public, but they revealed little more than Sandberg’s involvement orchestrating the rollout of the charity ahead of the Oprah appearance.
Shavar Jeffries, a civil rights attorney who became linked with the school changes and lost the recent Newark mayoral election to Ras Baraka, summed up the debate.
“A majority of people support these ideas,” Jeffries told The New Yorker. “[But] you have to build coalitions and educate and advocate.”
Zuckerberg said Friday that’s he’s taken the Newark experience to heart.
It’s had “a big influence in our thinking,” he told the AP with regard to his $130 million gift to the Bay Area districts. For the 30-year-old billionaire, Newark offered a big lesson. The next test will be to see what he’s learned and how he can apply it to fix the problems at Fremont High.