Residents Face Off Over School Reforms Sparked by Facebook Money

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April 16, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal | Last September, city officials and residents excitedly hailed the $100 million gift that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged to help turn around Newark's failing school system. But developments since now find people facing off against each other.

According to the Wall Street Journal, even though Newark Mayor Cory Booker has successfully raised $44 million of the $100 million the city had to match to meet the requirements of the Zuckerberg gift, the city is divided over plans for spending that money. For instance, the announcement last week that $1 million will be awarded to five new high schools angered some residents and city officials who felt the money should go to current schools desperate for a cash infusion.

At a public hearing, residents applauded Councilwoman Mildred Crump, who accused donors of dismissing "our existing schools." Another city official complained that the process for awarding the money is secretive and, as the Wall Street Journal reports, made comparisons to the "Tuskegee experiment, when black men in the South were unwittingly enrolled in a medical trial that left their syphilis untreated."

Mayor Booker characterized the negative reactions as "unfortunate" and said that they were "distracting from the reality" of all the work that needs to be done to boost a system that is failing its 40,000 students. Currently only 41 percent of students are passing the English-language arts exam at grade level and just 55 percent of students are graduating in four years.

Observers fear that if the mayor and his backers can't quell the opposition to school reform plans, funders will take their money elsewhere. "The people providing these funds can provide them to any city in the country," said Robert Johnson, the dean of the New Jersey Medical School, and who is working with other community members on turnaround plans for the schools.—Bruce Trachtenberg