FORBES.COM: Attention Mayor Booker: How Not To Waste Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a man with a serious problem on his hands this morning: He’s getting what he’s long wished for. In Booker’s case, that means the resources and authority to reform his city’s dysfunctional school system.

As was reported this morning, Booker is about to receive them via a $100 million gift from Forbes 400 member Mark Zuckerberg in the guise of Facebook shares. Separately, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to join Booker and Zuckerberg on the Oprah Winfrey show Friday as part of a handover of authority over the schools from the state to Newark’s mayor.

We should all wish Booker well. It’s not that I doubt the Stanford U. Rhodes scholar’s smarts or commitment to educational reform. In fact, I’ve seen first-hand that he’s a true believer. A decade ago, I joined then-Newark city councilman Booker and a group of New Jersey educators and legislators on a trip to learn about education reform. It was the basis of a Forbes story titled Grass Roots.

The trip was the antithesis of the fact-finding junket. Our destination was Milwaukee. In January. The group of mostly African-American educators was skeptical when we set out that it was just another bid by right-wingers to wrest authority from the education establishment.

Attitudes became considerably more positive after we arrived in Milwaukee and discovered that its school voucher and choice programs were the product of local African-American parents and educators fed up with failing schools.

Credit for that trip, and others like it, went largely to Kevin Teasely. A former think tank staffer, Teasley set up the Greater Education Opportunities Foundation in 1998 and has devoted himself since to bringing educational programs that work to such garden paradises and Indianapolis (where GEO is headquartered) and Gary, Ind.

In recent years, Teasley’s foundation has set up three charter schools in those cities and another in Colorado Springs, Co. After hearing the news of Booker’s good fortune, I called Teasley to ask what he thinks the mayor ought to do to avoid the fate of many well-intentioned education reform initiatives, in which vast sums of money disappear with the best of intentions but virtually no discernible effect.

Teasley said he last ran into Booker at an education conference a few years ago, when the mayor was trying to raise funds from the educational charities of Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. Now that Booker’s finally succeeded, Teasley’s advice was twofold.

First, he suggests mimicking programs that work, like the one at Newark’s own North Star Academy. What has worked in Teasley’s schools? One that GEO set up didn’t have a library, so Teasley decided to give each child an iPad rather than scrounge for a roomful of books.

Most of his prescriptions are far less sexy. What Teasley says has really helped his schools’ students are longer school days, Saturday classes and summer academic programs, college coursework and vocational programs for high schoolers and busses that pick up kids when it’s convenient for students and parents, not teachers and administrators.

Teasley says GEO is offering 20% more services to students even in a year when its budget has been cut 3%. It’s doing so through programs like one in which professional development is done in-school—and without disrupting or suspending classes—rather than by sending hoards of teachers to a far-away conference at a fancy hotel.

Teasley’s other bit of advice: Innovate.

“Look at Zuckerberg himself,” says Teasley. “He created something new. That’s what created his wealth. Booker shouldn’t necessarily just pour money into [the educational equivalent of] Google but into the next Facebook.”

It sounds like good advice to me.

By Neil Weinberg,


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