Billionaires Helping to Fund 'Leadership Institute for Jersey City Schools

May 27, 2014

Two billionaire hedge fund managers are donating $3 million to fund a new "leadership institute" for the Jersey City public school system.

The $9 million program, which will be housed in the district's West Side Avenue headquarters, will provide training for new and existing administrators, as well as "teacher-leaders," according to district spokeswoman Maryann Dickar.

"This program is innovative and comprehensive, ensuring that leaders will continually grow and develop," Dickar said in an email. "This institute will not only strengthen Jersey City's public schools but will also be a model for other cities around the nation.

The program is expected to begin in the fall. The district is looking for an executive director to run the institute, as well as more donors to fund it.

The two billionaires who have offered funding, David Tepper and Alan Fournier, are founders of education group Better Education for Kids (B4K). The group advocates for changes to the education system that are opposed by teachers unions, including tenure reform and teacher evaluations.

The two men have spent tens of thousands donating to campaigns of Jersey City pols. Fournier and his wife, who live in Summit, have given over $34,000 to six sitting BOE members, while Tepper and the manager of his hedge fund gave $15,600 to a trio of BOE candidates who won election in 2012.

Meanwhile, B4K's political arm spent more than $250,000 helping to elect Mayor Steve Fulop last year. Fulop's former campaign manager, Shelley Skinner, once worked for B4K and now runs the group's charitable arm.

The local teachers union has some harsh words for the district's leadership institute. Ron Greco, president of the Jersey City Education Association, said the institute sounds like a local version of the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy, a training ground for education leaders. Schools Superintendent Marcia V. Lyles is a Broad graduate.

"This is the trend, nowadays: billionaires trying to take control of public schools," Greco wrote in an email. "This $3 million is just a foot in the door in Jersey City. Expect more segregated and elitist programs to come, at the expense of children."

Tepper told the Wall Street Journal he donated his portion of the $3 million gift because Fulop and the district's BOE are "pro-reform."

The 28,000-student district, which is partially run by the state, struggles when it comes to standardized testing. In 2013, the percentage of students scoring proficient in language arts lagged behind the rest of the state anywhere from 11 to 19 points, depending on the grade being tested, while math proficiency lagged from 5 to 21 points behind.

The district's graduation rate is 67 percent, 20 points lower than the state average.