Monday, June 09, 2014

Money Talks, But Sometimes Profanely

The Koch brothers know how to get in front of a story.  They have announced a $25 million grant for the United Negro College Fund, which Steve M. notes is not coincidentally coming on the heels of the opening of a documentary which was

defunded and subject to de facto censorship thanks to the influence of billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Citizen Koch examines how the billionaire Koch brothers used to wealth to exert influence in Wisconsin amid staggering union protests and a near-recall of its corporate-friendly governor.

And Steve-O recalls reading in September, 2010

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is setting a US record by giving $100 million - the largest philanthropic donation from someone his age.

The 26 year-old will appear on “Oprah” Friday to announce he’s giving the money to the Newark, NJ public school system. Newark can use the money - it’s one of the country’s weakest school systems – only half of its students graduate from its high schools.

Zuckerberg is a product of public schools and the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but none of his schooling took place in New Jersey.

So why Newark? Why now?

Trailers for Sony Pictures Entertainment's film, "The Social Network" are flooding the new fall TV shows and reviews are hitting major papers.

The movie is based on the founding of Facebook – and Zuckerberg does not come off as a sympathetic character. (You can watch the trailer here)

Today the New York Times features its review, rating the film a "NYT Critics' Pick."(Disclosure: I haven't yet seen the film.) The Times loves the film, and does NOT love Zuckerberg. Manohla Dargis writes: "It’s a resonant contemporary story about the new power elite and an older, familiar narrative of ambition, except instead of discovering his authentic self, Mark builds a database, turning his life — and ours — into zeroes and ones, which is what makes it also a story about the human soul." Zuckerberg is described as having "pathologically poor" people skills.

It just so happens that Friday – the day Z’s appearing with Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker on the Oprah show is the same day of the NY premiere of "The Social Network."

Steve M. recognizes that the Koch brothers are far more interested in climate change denial, suppression of labor, deregulation of the health care industry and corporate takeover of American government than they are in educating black Americans. He remarks

I guess that's how we solve the problem of chronic underfunding of education for minority-group members in America: just make lots and lots of movies about disreputable billionaires. The guilt money for non-white students will come flooding in! Problem solved!

Get to work, Hollywood.

Not so fast.   The push for education "reform" (a/k/a public school destruction) began, reports Owen David in The Nation, upon

Chris Christie’s rise to governor and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to reform the Newark school system.

Zuckerberg announced his massive gift, Christie and then-mayor Cory Booker by his side, on a broadcast of Oprah. The trio, Oprah said, were “putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

Although Christie was cutting nearly a billion dollars from New Jersey’s education budget, including over $40 million from the Newark schools he found “absolutely disgraceful,” Zuckerberg’s fortune gave Booker the political cover to endorse Christie’s education politics. “Booker used that spectacle to pronounce that he was in favor of the school reform project,” says Junius Williams, a Newark attorney and civil rights veteran.

Booker’s team established the nonprofit Foundation for Newark’s Future to distribute the young billionaire’s gift and matching donations. One of its first mandates was to recruit a new superintendent. The state selected Cami Anderson, a hard-driving former Booker campaign adviser and New York superintendent who then oversaw education at Rikers Island. In a 2010 e-mail, Booker aide Bari Mattes wrote that the Broad Foundation, a big giver to education reform, was “very interested in knowing who the Superintendent is going to be.” Anderson’s lengthy reform pedigree satisfied Broad, which provided generous early funding.

But who would get the dough? As Mattes emphasized in another e-mail, “MZ’s money is not going in to classrooms.” It was soon clear that Zuckerberg’s money wasn’t going to patch holes in buildings that need a district-estimated $1.3 billion in repairs, or hire support staff for the fifth-poorest youth population in the country.

In fact, not a cent of Zuckerberg’s money has gone toward hiring counselors, social workers or nurses. Meanwhile, “there have been DRAMATIC cuts to wraparound services,” wrote Mike Maillaro, Newark Teachers Union’s director of communication and research, in an e-mail. Last year, every attendance counselor in the district was eliminated.

Hawthorne Avenue reports losing eight support staff members since 2011, including a guidance counselor and two instructional coaches. The school has neither a music teacher nor a librarian.

Zuckerberg’s money would instead “create systemic education reform in Newark.” In 2011, it was reported that a full third of the foundation’s cash had found the pockets of consultants. As Dale Russakoff recently reported in a lengthy New Yorker article, that total now sits at about $20 million.

Though a smattering of grants have benefitted local causes—after-school yoga ($31,000), book drives ($1.2 million), new district schools ($2.1 million) and sundry others—over 40 percent of the money granted to organizations has left the state. Outside talent and recruitment agencies, for instance, raked in over $4 million to align district staffing with Anderson’s politics.

But the most consequential early grant landed close to home. In its first year, the FNF directed $1.86 million to a previously unheard-of consulting firm, Global Education Advisors, for a district audit. The company was founded by Chris Cerf, an adviser to Booker whom Governor Christie had just appointed to education commissioner. Cerf claimed his “very brief period” with the group wouldn’t influence his role, but in his official capacity he’d oversee every recommendation his former company made. (The audit also received FNF-directed funding from the Broad Foundation, whose “Superintendents Academy” Cerf attended in 2004.)

Unlike the Koch brothers, Mark Zuckerberg probably has meant well (below, photo from the UK"s Daily Mail of at least two other people who knew better).  In the New Yorker, Dale Russakoff commented "Zuckerberg was disarmingly open regarding how little he knew about urban education or philanthropy."  He longed for "transformational change" and naively thought that would be delivered through the reform movement- but especially by throwing bonuses at effective teachers, as he had done at Facebook which, evidently, he believed was a comparable situation.  He was taken in by Newark mayor Cory Booker and, Russakoff wrote, "posted a note on his Facebook page saying that Booker would focus as single-mindedly on education in his second term as he had on crime in his first." Zuckerberg may not have realized that the Mayor aimed to undermine the public school system by expanding charters and weakening tenure and seniority protections.  And to leave Newark for Washington, D.C., where he is now a U.S. Senator.

Perhaps the Koch brothers donation- though it is only a drop in the bucket filled with their fortune- will do some good, though obviously not nearly as much as their special interest largess will harm the 99%.  But the saga of the Zuckerberg grant in New Jersey must give pause to anyone who would assume that big money thrown at a public problem by billionaires will ameliorate, rather than exacerbate, social conditions.

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