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Zuckerberg's $100 million for Newark, N.J., schools stirs controversy

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School-choice advocate Derrell Bradford says Newark already spends more than $20,000 a year for each of its 40,000 students, but it’s stuck in a status quo that doesn’t serve kids well. “[The gift] is huge leverage for the mayor to get things done rapidly,” says Mr. Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone in Newark, which supports charters and vouchers for private school.

Booker, Christie, and now Zuckerberg are on what Mr. Bradford sees as the right side of the “culture war” of education reform – people “who believe in competition” and achieving measured goals. The other side, he says, is “a baby boomer, excuse-laden culture ... that says input is all that matters and results are irrelevant.”

But others say the publicity surrounding the gift is misleading. The district receives more money per student based on a formula weighted to address the needs of low-income students, disabled students, and English-language learners, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which advocates for high-needs students in New Jersey. The district, he says, has made dramatic improvements in early education and narrowing racial achievement gaps.

He also questions some of the solutions that reformers tout. “This notion that you hear that if we close the district-run schools and create charter schools is somehow going to magically bring about more improvement for all kids across the district is nonsense,” he says. There are good and bad charters in the city, just as there are good and bad regular schools, he says.

Nationally, there have been some high-profile successes in charter schools, and Oprah promoted six such charter networks on her show earlier this week with $1 million grants. But studies show mixed results overall. As for merit pay, another reform idea that’s gaining popularity and may figure into Booker’s plans: This week the most rigorous study yet of merit pay for teachers found that large pay incentives did not yield consistent or lasting gains in student test scores.

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