Money Thrown at a Brick Wall

October 5, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on The New York Times (Online) on October 5, 2010.

Lots of things could render Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark ineffectual, but ultimately no matter how many dollars you throw against a brick wall, it just won’t fall down. It’s the lesson of seemingly endless public‐​school reforms.

Consider the No Child Left Behind Act, which uses tens of billions of dollars annually to try to force states to make yearly progress toward universal math and reading “proficiency.”

It sounds great, but states have mainly defined “proficiency” at rock‐​bottom levels rather than actually improve schools. And No Child Left Behind came after decades — and hundreds of billions of dollars — of states and districts failing in efforts to impose tough standards and accountability.

So why can’t real reform be either bought or forced on public schools? Political reality. Because their very livelihoods come from the system, public schooling employees have the greatest motivation to be involved in education politics. That gives them outsized political power, which they naturally use to get as much money, and as little accountability as possible.

In light of this, is there any hope for Zuckerberg’s gift? There certainly isn’t in trying to force reforms directly on Newark’s public schools. Even if Mayor Booker or Governor Christie can impose, say, merit pay grounded in tough standards and tests, it won’t last. Unions and administrator groups have far more staying power than elected officials or one‐​time donations, and they’ll eventually gut reforms they don’t like.

How about charter schools? In theory they are independent and must compete for students, giving them both the ability and incentive to adopt tough policies. But they are still public schools subject to political control, and they are often hamstrung by regulations.

The best hope would be to fund scholarships with Zuckerberg’s money, giving parents the ability to send their kids to institutions that have to earn their business. Not only would that be best for kids now, but it would help to launch competition, which is the key to innovation and sustained improvement.

Unfortunately, Mayor Booker has said he won’t use the money for that. Which means, sadly, that Zuckerberg’s gift is almost certainly doomed to be dollars heaved against a wall.

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