What I Would Do With $100 Million

When I read that Mark Zuckerberg, who made billions starting Facebook, was giving $100 million to the Newark, N.J. Public Schools, I wondered how I would spend that money if I had the opportunity.

Newark has about 39,000 students in grades K-12, so $100 million (really $20 million a year for five years) won’t go far towards solving all this urban district’s problems, but used properly, it certainly can make a difference. But what would be the most effective use?

Since the stated objective is to develop a new education plan “based on clear standards and rewards for performance,” the money could be used to train students to take standardized tests. Once test scores were raised, everyone could rejoice and assume that the problems of education are solved. I hope not.

There will be pressure to spend the money on technology. Purchasing computers and other equipment would be a quick and transparent way to use those dollars. Proper use of technology can improve education, but is it the most effective way a district could use this infusion of money?

Fixing up the learning environment — deteriorating classrooms, outdated science labs, gyms and whole schools — certainly should be considered. Research shows that children learn better in clean, comfortable modern buildings. Unfortunately, $20 million, or even $100 million, would buy very little in terms of new buildings in Newark. It might be used to upgrade existing ones.

There are all sorts of pet programs that could be instituted. Eliminate middle schools. Make all elementary schools K-8. Separate boys from girls. Reduce school size. Hire more counseling staff. Upgrade the food service. Improve security. Become Montessori schools. Provide school uniforms. Use “Singapore math.” The list goes on.

Every one of these has been tried at least once in recent years and received good press coverage. They all have vocal advocates, and each is a tempting “solution” to whatever ails the schools. They all work for a while, especially while their advocates are there to motivate teachers and students. But they are seldom the magic bullet solution they are made out to be.

How about busing? Almost all Newark’s students come from minority backgrounds. Consideration could be given to busing students to surrounding, mainly white suburban schools. That would be a grand gesture, but it probably wouldn’t accomplish much for education.

Some think “merit pay” could attract better teachers and get current teachers to do a better job. Indications are that it doesn’t work, but that has hardly muted the demand. A more useful way to use money on personnel might be to upgrade the district’s teachers through a program of in-service training. That could even be extended to parents if we really believe that education should start in the home.

There will be demands to put money into high schools programs — honors courses, enhanced music, art and drama, new athletic facilities. That could result in awards to outstanding youngsters of whom the city could be proud, but it would not do much for the majority.

The fact is, that $100 million cannot solve all the problems of Newark or any other large urban school district. Many of the ideas mentioned make sense, but there isn’t enough money to do it all, and no one program is going to suddenly turn a struggling district into an outstanding one. When $100 million doesn’t solve everything, of course, we’ll have the usual people out there saying, “See, throwing money at the problem didn’t solve it.” It’s a conundrum.

How would I use the $100 million? Judging from all that I have read, seen and experienced, I would concentrate my money and effort on the youngest children and their parents, setting a base for the future of the district. That, unfortunately, means ignoring the very real needs of children already in the upper grades. But with $20 million a year, you can’t do everything. 

My priorities would be to offer every four-year-old a full-day pre-school program, with the proviso that at least one parent of every child must participate in a day or evening support program. I’d also provide full-day kindergarten and reduce class size in the lower grades to no more than 15. I’d require teachers in this program to take in-service training in how to teach small groups of children. I haven’t worked out the cost, but I am sure that putting this emphasis on early education would add up to at least $20 million annually.

Spending dollars on early education would not immediately drive up test scores or solve the district’s myriad other problems, but by putting the emphasis on the youngest children (and their parents and teachers), the district could set a base for the future and create a cadre of children, supported by their parents, who want and are ready to learn.

With the next $100 million, they’d be ready to move on to the intermediate grades.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."