Facebook Founder and Broad Foundation to Pitch in More for NJ School Reforms

June 5, 2012

 The Christie administration is harnessing funds from two high-profile private foundations to press some of its statewide education reforms.

The State Board of Education tomorrow will have two unusual resolutions before it to accept more than $600,000 in outside funds from two foundations:

  • $200,000 from StartUp:Education, the national foundation created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

  •  $430,000 from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the California-based organization that has helped train and support three of the administration’s top education officials, including acting Commissioner Chris Cerf.

If approved as expected, the money will go to several distinct projects, officials said yesterday. The StartUp money will be earmarked for research into best practices around school turnarounds nationwide, and toward the hiring of a grant writer in the department to seek additional funds.

This funding is not connected with Zuckerberg’s separate $100 million gift to Newark schools, also through StartUp.

The Broad Foundation money would go to two places, according to officials: $290,000 for professional training of staff in the administration’s planned Regional Achievement Centers, the hub of its efforts for improving the state’s lowest-performing schools; and $140,000 to bolster the state’s oversight of charter schools. The outside funding is a new twist for the department that has been depleted in resources, even as Gov. Chris Christie presses a greater state presence in public schools, especially in low-performing schools.

Such foundations have contributed to New Jersey schools individually and through their districts for years, and Broad has paid for consultants for the state, including in Cerf’s first year.

Democratic legislators in recent hearings raised questions about the administration’s prolific use of per diem consultants, although it is a practice used by previous administrations as well.

Still, even though a relatively small sum of money, this would be the first time in recent memory that outside foundations have paid the state directly and played so overtly a role in helping develop statewide policy. The state board is required to approve such outside funds, a process rarely invoked.

“I’ve never seen a resolution like this before, not in my time on the board,” said Arcelio Aponte, the state board’s president.

A spokesman for Cerf said the department was seeking all the help it could get in what is a busy agenda that spans school turnarounds, charter schools, teacher tenure and evaluation reform, and new funding systems for schools.

“We are taking on a significant amount of work, and looking at every available opportunity for support,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

“Pending approval from the State Board, these grants will strengthen our efforts to turn around our lowest-performing schools and ensure that we provide all students in New Jersey with a high-quality public education.”

The involvement of the Broad Foundation especially is likely to cause a stir, as the group is linked to aggressive and oftentimes controversial reforms in schools, including outright closures and staff overhauls now being championed by Cerf and Christie as options for New Jersey.

Cerf, a former deputy chancellor in New York City, was a Broad fellow before taking the New Jersey position. Also going through Broad’s programs were assistant commissioners Peter Shulman and Penny MacCormack.