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Reckhow: The Short, Sad Story Of PENewark

image from farm9.staticflickr.comThis is a guest post from MSU political scientist Sarah Reckhow:

The Newark education story often looks like ed-reform goes to Hollywood. The cast is packed with larger than life personalities (Cory Booker, Chris Christie, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah!). The plot line starts out so out heroically (Young billionaire tries to save city schools!).

But the protagonist is facing some setbacks.  The latest is the Christmas Day email release showing how team Newark and team Facebook (mostly Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg) managed the PR surrounding the announcement of Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift. The media coverage of the emails has emphasized how the Facebook and Newark teams sought to burnish Zuckerberg's image, but the emails also contain some juicy nuggets about the working assumptions of big budget education philanthropists. 

Some of the key takeaways include: internal jockeying among matching funders over what interventions to support, an expensive but ineffective community outreach effort, and the dangers of creating brand-now (and short-lived) nonprofits to do foundations' work.

First, note the swift and unsubtle entrances of education funding heavyweights Eli Broad and Bill Gates. The Zuckerberg and Booker teams are working overtime to solicit matching funds. Broad and Gates are interested in giving money in line with their own priorities, and they appear to leap to suggestions with considerable policy implications. Broad wants to know who the superintendent will be. Gates suggests funding teacher professional development and “panoramic cameras” for classroom observation

Second, the discussion of “community organizing” foreshadows later difficulties. Booker planned to launch a campaign to solicit public input on how to spend Zuckerberg’s donation. In an exchange about initial expenses, Sheryl Sandberg asks a Booker adviser for “more details on why it costs so much to do community organizing?” Sandberg turns out to have good reason to be asking. An email from Booker adviser Bari Mattes discusses a “back of the envelope 3 month budget” with $75,000 budgeted for “community organizing” as well as $75,000 for “consultants.”

In the end, the community work ended up being even more expensive.  A door-to-door outreach campaign in Newark got underway in December 2010. The campaign was coordinated by a new organization, Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark), which was created by a PR firm, Tusk Strategies. Tusk was paid $1.5 million, and the engagement effort was criticized for its expense and and vague results. Ironically, the spending on the community outreach campaign also contributed to a growing impression among Newarkers that decision-making about the Zuckerberg donation was secretive.

A cynic might assume that foundations were pulling the strings from the beginning in Newark, and the “community organizing” was always intended as window dressing. I'm not ready to draw that conclusion. I just don’t believe that philanthropists and their partners intend to botch “community organizing” so badly. Perhaps the Newark effort is simply what happens when you have too many cocktails with McKinsey consultants and PR professionals. Perhaps $100 million gifts attract costly consulting outfits like fruit flies to grape soda.

Whether intentional or simply unfortunate, errors like this are not only costly from a financial perspective, they are politically costly as well. And this isn't the first time that big philanthropy has struggled with community outreach.  Take the collapse of the Gates creation, Communities for Teaching Excellence, which started with a $3.5 million grant.

A community organizing effort that invests in existing organizations with long-term experience working in Newark could have been less expensive and much more politically beneficial. Working with existing organizations would likely require compromise and trade-offs on policy priorities (and perhaps that is the rub). But building new organizations as vehicles for philanthropy looks like wasted effort in the long run.

What has become of PENewark since the expensive outreach campaign? The website has been repurposed by a vintage furniture seller. The group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been silent since 2011.

- Sarah Reckhow

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To imagine that hiring Tusk with the Facebook money for $1.5M was somehow a well-meaning error is hard to support. Tusk, the former aide to now imprisoned Illinois governor Blagojevich,, became Bloomberg's campaign manager and then the high-priced consultant to charter school maven Eva Moskowitz and queen of the corpreformers, Michelle Rhee and her organization StudentsFirst. He is not someone you hire when you really want grassroots community organizing done but rather networking w/ deep pocketed privateers and hedgefunders.

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