By last fall, time was running out for Newark’s state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, and his allies.
Newark schools would soon return to local governance, likely ending an unprecedented era of change in the district fueled by $200 million from wealthy donors. So as the clock counted down, Cerf’s team once again turned to those deep-pocketed benefactors.
In October 2017, district officials wrote up a wish list that included $250,000 for help telling a “comprehensive narrative of success” about the policy changes Cerf had helped engineer, $200,000 to “solidify partnerships/alliances,” and $100,000 for Cerf to continue advising district leaders after he stepped down in February, according to an outline of potential requests to a major donor obtained by Chalkbeat.
Earlier that year, district staffers planned to the ask the donor to “sustain and build upon” the policy changes by helping grow the city’s charter-school sector, according to the agenda for a May 2017 phone call. The agenda set a goal for 45 percent of the city’s students to attend charter schools — up from about one-third of students last school year.
It’s unclear exactly how much of the requested funding was eventually granted. But in the months leading up to Newark’s return to local control, private dollars were used to pay consultants to help with the transition and to fund a campaign touting the success of the policy changes.
The wish list and other district documents detailing that spending, which Chalkbeat obtained, shed new light on the degree to which the Cerf administration relied on private money to support its efforts until the day the district reverted to local control on Feb. 1 — and how donors helped extend the reformers’ influence even after they left.
It’s common for outgoing administrations to highlight their accomplishments. But the district’s close coordination with donors, whose contributions often evade public scrutiny, raises ongoing questions about transparency and private influence over public schools, said Domingo Morel, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Newark who has written about state takeovers of urban school districts.
“It’s actors behind the scenes trying to shape public education without any role for the public,” he said.
The main donor that district officials targeted in the October 2017 wish list and the May 2017 call was the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy created by the billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010 attracted a matching amount from other donors and jump-started the district overhaul, which included a redesigned teachers contract, new charter schools, and the shuttering of low-performing schools.
Most of the money flowed through the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a nonprofit that manages charitable funds and has overseen the Zuckerberg money since 2016. District officials determined how the foundation money was spent, but donors still had to sign off, people familiar with the foundation said. The arrangement allowed consultants to do work for the district without being publicly vetted.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Cerf insisted that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, often called CZI, did not shape district policy; instead, district officials sought funding for projects they had developed. (Chalkbeat receives some funding from CZI.)
He said he had never seen the May or October 2017 documents, which he said were produced by “lower-level” staffers without his input. In particular, he said he had not seen or endorsed the charter-school enrollment goal, and pointed out that he has advocated for the closure of low-performing charter schools.
He said the funding wish list was only a draft, adding that proposals are often tailored to appeal to donors’ interests but do not always match how grants are actually spent. For instance, he said some of the $200,000 requested for “partnerships/alliances” were used for internships for high school students and events to celebrate student and faculty achievements.
It’s unclear which of the potential requests CZI ultimately received and approved. A CZI spokesman said the group provided funding to support “a smooth transition back to local control,” but added that the requests it granted differed from those on the October 2017 wish list.
Cerf said he did receive some philanthropic money to continue supporting the district after he resigned as superintendent on Feb. 1, though he declined to say how much. A spokeswoman for the Prudential Foundation, which the October 2017 document said had agreed to fund a $100,000 matching grant for Cerf’s services, said it did not actually provide that grant.
Cerf said his services included advising district officials who asked for his input, particularly on budget matters, and fundraising for education projects. He did not receive any public dollars for that work, he added. (He also volunteered to help craft the education portion of the city’s bid for Amazon to build a new headquarters in Newark, he said.)
Cerf also defended the use of private funds for district projects, which is common in large urban districts like Newark, which advocates say gets too little public money. He said the private investments helped with the “magnificently complicated” task of transferring power from the state, which seized control of the district in 1995, back to Newark’s school board.
“The number one job during my tenure was to effect a smooth and efficient transition from state to local control,” Cerf said. “I’m very proud that we were able to do that.”
By the time Cerf was appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2015 to take over as Newark schools chief, the district had become a case study in ambitious reform gone awry.
Parents, students, and the Newark Teachers Union had joined forces against the school closures and staff layoffs, and the superintendent who had pushed the changes, Cami Anderson, had resigned. The troubled reform efforts were detailed in a critically acclaimed book by journalist Dale Russakoff, published just as Cerf became superintendent.
Cerf, a former state education commissioner who had been an architect of Newark’s overhaul, was determined to reverse this “narrative of failure,” as he told the journal Education Next in 2016. He was motivated by signs of progress, such as the district’s rising graduation rate and falling suspension rate. But he also understood that when the district reverted to local control, his successor could dismantle policies he had pushed for, such as a single enrollment system for district and charter schools.
So, in the final months of state control, Cerf’s team planned a public campaign to promote the reforms — an effort that one district memo dubbed a “victory lap.” The campaign would help justify the huge sum spent on the changes, and make it harder for the next administration to defend scraping them.
Leftover funds from the $200 million that Zuckerberg and other donors had provided for the reforms were used to hire a public-relations firm and to pay a consultant to review a study by independent researchers of the district’s reforms.
The consultant, Jesse Margolis, was paid to review “multiple drafts” of a study by Harvard University researchers on the impact of the Newark overhaul on student performance and “suggest improvements,” according to a work description that said Margolis would be paid $1,000 per day for his services. (He also conducted his own analysis of student progress.)
The final Harvard report, which found mixed results, disclosed that CZI had paid for the study and that Margolis and a district official had reviewed drafts of the report.
Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist and education professor who led the study, said in an email that it is standard practice for his team to show districts drafts so they can catch any errors in the reports’ policy descriptions, make sure student privacy is not violated, and comment on his team’s methods and findings. He added that his team retains “the right to present the final results as we choose.”
Last year, another $130,000 from the remaining Zuckerberg funds was used to pay for an analysis of the district’s universal enrollment system — one of the most controversial policy changes, which some board members have said they want to eliminate. The analysis was conducted by Margolis and researchers from Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership with funds from the Community Foundation of New Jersey.
The enrollment study was published in April, just as some school board members — now back in charge of the district — were reviewing the system, called Newark Enrolls. The study was mostly positive. A Columbia press release said the report found that Newark Enrolls “increased choice while respecting the importance of community,” and quoted Margolis calling the system a model for other districts looking to better integrate their students.
Margolis told Chalkbeat that the district had asked for the enrollment study — a common practice for districts seeking external analyses of their policies. But he insisted that he and the Columbia researchers maintained “total editorial control” over the report.
“We conducted this as objectively and rigorously as one possibly could,” he said. (He added that the $1,000 per day he was paid to review the Harvard study is lower than his normal consulting rate.)
Other consultants — some with longstanding ties to Cerf — were paid with Zuckerberg money to help the district with work related to the return to local control.
The October 2017 wish list sought $168,000 for De’Shawn Wright, an advisor to former-Mayor Cory Booker who co-founded the Newark Charter School Fund, to provide “interim transition support” from February to July. Wright had served as Cerf’s chief of staff, but because he was paid with private money, the amount and source of his salary were not publicly disclosed — even to members of the school board, according to reporting by journalist Bob Braun. According to a district document tracking private grants, Wright’s consulting firm, Keystone Consulting, was paid $336,000 for his services from February 2017 to January 2018.
Former state education commissioner David Hespe, through his consulting firm Effective Education Solutions, was set to receive $52,000 in private money from December 2016 to January 2018 for providing “critical transition-related activities” to the district, according to district documents. (Braun has also previously reported on Hespe’s consulting work for the district.)
As a consultant, Hespe last year helped Cerf administration officials craft the state guidelines that Newark’s school board must now adhere to in order to keep control of the schools, other documents show.
In addition, an education consulting firm called Kitamba, Inc. received $25,000 per month for nine months beginning in May 2017 to help with the transition to local control and other “strategic support,” according to district documents. The $225,000 in services included producing an “operating manual” for incoming district leaders that would describe their main responsibilities and big issues they would face, such as teacher shortages in particular areas. The documents said the manual would fit in with the district’s “legacy planning.”
Kitamba’s CEO is Rajeev Bajaj. Bajaj was involved with Cerf in the founding of a consultancy, Global Education Advisors, that the city hired in 2010 using private funds, the Star-Ledger has reported. The firm created a controversial plan calling for school closures and new charter schools.
Wright, Hespe, and Bajaj did not respond to requests for comment.
Dakarai Aarons, a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative spokesman, said the operating manual was one of the transition-related projects that the foundation funded.
“As part of our commitment to Newark’s students and educators, we provided funding to meet emerging community needs identified by the district to ensure a smooth transition to local control,” Aarons said in a statement, adding that the goal was to sustain academic gains made over the past eight years.
Aarons would not say whether the district proposals it funded included a $250,000 contract for a communications firm to help develop the “comprehensive narrative of success” about the Newark reforms referenced in the district’s October 2017 wish list. A spokeswoman for the communications firm, GMMB, said she could not confirm whether the firm did work for the district.
If CZI did fund such a campaign, it would be in line with a Zuckerberg-funded report from 2015 that sought to draw lessons from the first years of the Newark overhaul.
“Leaders need to approach engagement like a campaign, with sophisticated public relations strategies designed to increase support for change, neutralize opponents, and capitalize on early wins to build momentum for what’s next,” the report advised. “Funders of reform efforts may sometimes shrink from bankrolling such a campaign, but they do so at the risk of weakening the prospects for success.”