The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the wealthiest charities in the world, will use Newark to develop a system that could use student test score data to evaluate teachers. But no one beyond a small circle of wealthy entrepreneurs and some politicians know what’s about to happen in the city’s schools.
Some people believe that’s a good thing, arguing the private money will improve schooling in a system beset by problems. Others, like former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, believe it’s an "audacious experiment with Newark’s children — a hijacking."
The Gates foundation, deeply embroiled nationally in its own version of education reform, has ponied up $3 million to be used to create "a talent management system." Its website said the money was designed to "support the planning and implementation of a data system for the Newark Public School District that will support accountability and include data measures for data driven instruction, teacher evaluation and growth models."
"I have some questions about that money," says Deborah Terrell, Newark’s interim superintendent. "I don’t know anything about it. I was never told about it."
The new teacher evaluation system is coming to Newark in much the same way as private money brought a controversial reorganization plan to the Newark schools — through private funds channeled through a third party to a private consulting firm. That firm — Global Education Advisors — was founded by acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, although he says he cut ties to the profit-making company after he was named to New Jersey’s top school post.
In the case of the evaluation system, the Gates money will be channeled through the NewSchools Venture Fund, which describes itself as a "venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education by supporting education entrepreneurs." It either will produce the teacher-evaluation system for the Newark schools or pay someone else to do it.
The fund’s partners, among them hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, include John Doerr, who personally gave $10 million to the foundation controlled by Newark Mayor Cory Booker to raise money for education reform. Doerr repeatedly refused to answer questions about his donation and connection to NewSchools, but spokespeople for both the fund and Booker deny the arrangement represents a conflict of interest.
"The Gates foundation’s funds are completely separate from the $10 million donated by John Doerr and there is no conflict of interest inherent in these two separate donations," says Esmeralda Diaz Cameron, a spokeswoman for Booker.
But neither Gates, nor NewSchools, nor Booker, nor Doerr will release any information about who wrote the grant proposal for the evaluation system or what it will do.
"It’s a cesspool," says Paul Tractenberg, a professor at Rutgers Law School and director of the Institute of Education Law and Policy at the university. "The lack of responses are proof positive of the utter lack of transparency in this shadowy private education reform network."
The Gates foundation gave contradictory answers to questions about the money for the teacher-evaluation system. First, it said the $3 million was part of the matching funds Booker needed to raise to meet the requirements of a $100 million grant from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, a gift rolled out with much fanfare on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." But the money didn’t go to Booker or his foundation, but rather to NewSchools — an entity Williams called a "trusted partner in the work we have supported around the country."
NewSchools funds profit-making educational firms, but its spokesman, Jonathan Schorr, insists it is dedicated only to "improving schools." Schorr, who refused to release documents on the grant, says the fund will be "entirely public about the recipients and uses of these funds."
David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center in Newark, says private foundations and individuals have not been candid about their aims and adds, "Private funding without public accountability will only undermine the effort to improve outcomes for Newark students."
A cesspool indeed.
Somebody needs to clean it up.
Starting with Bill Gates.