Today at National Review, Rich Lowry does some education money math on the occasion of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark public schools. He is pessimistic about the possibility that more money—even private money geared toward reform—can make much of a dent in one of the worst performing school systems in the country. Lowry writes:
Newark spends more per pupil than any other city in the country, and gets dismayingly little for it. For $22,000 per pupil — more than twice the national average — it graduates half its students.
Which makes Zuckerberg's millions feel a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. And Lowry is quite right when he says that "it's easy to imagine Newark spending $44,000 per pupil and arriving at the same dismaying outcome."
Bringing outside money into a dysfunctional, already over-funded urban public school system is far from unprecedented. Schools chief Michelle Rhee did the same thing in D.C. She did it semi-quietly, with a patchwork of donations from foundations to cover the major bonuses and salary increases for every teacher that were required to push through a merit pay proposal. It took $64.5 million in outside money to win important (though not earth-shaking) concessions in the union contract negotiations that shaped most of her difficult tenure. (Money, by the by, which may leave with Rhee if she is booted by presumptive mayor-elect Vincent Gray when he takes over the mayoralty from Rhee champion and outgoing mayor Adrian Fenty.)
Now young reformist Newark mayor Cory Booker is poised to try the same gambit, with a little more money and a lot more publicity. Booker's powerful backer—the Fenty to his Rhee—is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. They seem to be genuinely willing to work together on education reform, which is impressive, since Booker is likely to make a bid for Christie's job at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Lowry isn't wrong to feel hopeless. Money spent on education is like the money spent on a restaurant tab for a large group: The numbers never make any sense or add up properly, and you always feel like you paid for more than you actually got.
But there is a crucial difference between the tens and hundreds of billions that pour into states and districts through the stimulus or federal jobs bills or other feel-good congressional grants and the tens or hundreds of millions trickling into troubled systems from private donors. The purpose of virtually all of the federal money (with some relatively paltry exceptions) is to preserve the status quo. The private money is designed to drive change. Money can't solve everything. But the right kind of money, in the right hands, made the difference between success and failure of the merit pay proposal in D.C. Here's hoping Booker has similar success with reform, without—as Lowry notes—the tragic defenestration of the hero at the end of the story.