What began as a swashbuckling move by the mayor of Newark, N.J., the state’s governor, and a newly minted billionaire to reshape the beleaguered Newark school system has turned into a tangle of blowback and counterpunches as skeptics contend their plan would violate state law.
The hubbub centers on a bet by Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old founder of the Facebook social-networking site, that $100 million of his money—and brash new state and local leadership—could transform the Newark schools, which have been under state control for 15 years.
At issue is the power-sharing arrangement proposed by the three men. In a series of media appearances, including a kickoff announcement on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on Sept. 24, they said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would “partner” with Mayor Cory A. Booker over the next five years on a district turnaround, drawing on the millions Mr. Zuckerberg will provide, through a new foundation, from his own Facebook stock.
Mayor Booker must supply $100 million in matching funds. This week, he announced that he has already secured $40 million of it from high-profile sources including the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Just how much power Mr. Booker, a Democrat, would have over the schools isn’t clear, though in a conference call with reporters, Mr. Christie, a Republican, said the mayor would be “the lead person on my behalf” in the school system, working with the governor to choose a new superintendent and remold education practice.
Mr. Booker said he would spend months soliciting advice from Newarkers to craft a plan.
The prospect that the mayor could wield decisionmaking power, however, has alarmed education law experts, who maintain that state law would prohibit such a power shift.
David G. Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based organization that represents poor urban schoolchildren in a lengthy equitable-funding lawsuit against the state, said that no New Jersey law permits a mayor to run schools, and that approval by the state legislature would be required for such a change. Nearly all the state’s 600 school districts have elected school boards; a handful have boards appointed by mayors.
In addition, a 5-year-old law governing state intervention in struggling school districts vests authority over those districts in the governor’s appointed state commissioner of education, not the governor or a mayor, say experts and current and former lawmakers.
“There is no provision for the mayor to have that kind of control. The [state] commissioner [of education] is really the one who is given that authority by the law,” said Craig A. Stanley, a former Democratic state assemblyman who co-authored the 2005 law.
And the commissioner can’t cede that power to the governor, said Sheila Y. Oliver, the speaker of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly. The district-intervention law “nowhere defines or uses interchangeably ‘governor’ and ‘commissioner,’” she said.
There would be ‘no problem with the governor’s seeking advice from a mayor,” Mr. Sciarra said. “The problem would be if the mayor’s advising power becomes decisionmaking power.”
Scope of Intervention
The 2005 school-intervention law defines five areas in which the state can intervene in a troubled school district: personnel, governance, operations, fiscal management, and instructional programs. Districts can phase back to local control as they demonstrate benchmarks of improvement to the state. Newark, taken over in 1995, under an earlier law governing state intervention, is phasing back to local control in some areas of management, but remains under state control in others.
Paul L. Tractenberg, a Rutgers University law professor who is an expert on education law, called the Christie-Booker proposal “an effort to totally blur the lines” of authority over Newark schools.
“It’s a basic, established principle of law that you can only delegate the authority you actually have, and I don’t think the governor has the authority to operate the Newark schools,” he said.
Fans of the new partnership celebrated the possibility that it could improve the 40,000-student school system. Noting that special high-poverty funding enables Newark to spend $22,000 per pupil each year, but that half its students fail the state’s regular graduation exam, supporters of the proposed arrangement said those questioning its legality are simply blocking change.
“These people are punks,” said Derrell J. Bradford, the executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark group co-founded by Mayor Booker that advocates tuition vouchers and charter schools. “The people who have controlled public education in Newark for the last 30 years don’t even know what the plan is. They just know that if they don’t come up with it, it isn’t acceptable to them.”
Gov. Christie, already famous for his take-no-prisoners style of pushing for school improvement, responded in characteristic style to questions about the plan’s legality. In a speech, he warned that he is “coming” after those who oppose his efforts to improve schools in his hometown, including “politicians who have decided that their careers are more important than our children” and “lawyers who have made a lifetime out of suing us into failure.”
Critics have questioned the motives of all three men involved in the plan.
They note that Mr. Booker, who recently fought for re-election, has long been seen as an aspirant for higher office. He now says he’s likely to seek a third term as mayor so he can oversee the district overhaul.
Mr. Christie, who took office in January, is burnishing his reputation as a pugnacious school reformer. This week, he released a statewide education agenda that places a premium on opening more charter schools and basing teacher evaluations in part on student test scores. In interviews, he said that “there is nothing” he and Mr. Booker would be afraid to do as they planned ways to improve Newark’s schools.
Meanwhile, the timing of the announcement by Mr. Zuckerberg—on the same day as the New York City premiere of the movie “The Social Network,” which depicts him as having stolen the idea for Facebook—prompted some to accuse him of spin control. He dismissed those assertions and said that he had hoped to make his $100 million contribution anonymously.
Key questions remain about the Newark plan, and the answers are likely to inform judgments about its legality as well as opinions of those in the community.
In addition to the question of how much direct authority over schools can be vested in the mayor or the governor, there is the matter of what policymaking role Mr. Zuckerberg might have. Some wonder whether the entrepreneur could turn off the funding spigot if the reforms don’t meet with his approval. But he told reporters shortly before the announcement that he had not “earmarked” the money for any specific reforms.
Then there is the question of what changes the three have in mind. Gov. Christie, like Mayor Booker, is an outspoken supporter of school choice and charter schools. But Mr. Booker said in a conference call with reporters that the plan for Newark would have “no bias” toward charter schools. He also said that none of the money would be spent on private schools, an apparent reference to fears in some quarters that it could be used for a voucher system that would use public school money to enable poor children to attend private schools.
Although Mr. Zuckerberg said that he doesn’t have an agenda in mind, he told the TechCrunch technology-startup blog that he advocates closing failing schools, opening new charter schools, and getting new teacher contracts as school improvement strategies.
Some activists who have pushed for years to help Newark regain control of its own schools question whether the Booker-Christie plan represents an extension of state control. But Shavar D. Jeffries, the president of Newark’s elected advisory school board, said he doesn’t see the arrangement as antithetical to a phasing-back to local control.
“The mayor is stepping up in a leading, but advising, capacity to work with the board and the community to develop a reform agenda we can all support,” said Mr. Jeffries, an associate professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, in Newark.
Mr. Jeffries said that state officials have assured him that they will phase back control to the district as it proves itself capable, as outlined in the 2005 intervention law. If that doesn’t happen, Mr. Jeffries warned, “it could be a problem.”
The deep community engagement promised by the mayor in developing the school reform plan will be crucial, Mr. Jeffries said, because of the way the $100 million arrangement was created and unveiled: without any civic involvement.
“People are excited about the investment, but at the same time, they are concerned about the lack of democratic engagement in this process,” he said. “It’s the notion that you need to watch ‘Oprah’ at 4 p.m. on Friday to get a feel for important judgments being made about the future of our district.”
Junius Williams, the director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, which focuses on community involvement in Newark’s schools, said he sees it as ironic that Gov. Christie is touting systemic reform for the district when it was his state-level budget cutbacks that caused the Newark schools to lose 500 teaching jobs this year.
“What role will this $100 million play in alleviating those shortages?” Mr. Williams said.
In crafting an effective plan, Mr. Booker and Mr. Christie will have to make sure they draw on the advice of seasoned, effective educators in Newark, said the Rev. Bill Howard, who is the pastor of the city’s Bethany Baptist Church and who led Mr. Booker’s transition team.
“It’s fraught with a lot of potentially disastrous pitfalls, but if managed very, very carefully, it could have a positive effect,” Mr. Howard said.