What Could You Do With a $100,000,000 Grant?

“Could Do” not “Would Do”

In 2010, the Newark Public Schools were given a unique opportunity to try to answer that question. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), in a moment of great largesse, provided the failing school system with funds to turn it around. He hoped he could set the stage for replicable, systemic change. He also hoped that his dollars would be matched with other funds. Like other billionaires (Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind), he knew he was in a unique position to step in to help. Kudos to all who try.

My favorite (and most successful) example of this is the $800,000 gift from Stephen Colbert to the teachers of South Carolina (his home state). He auctioned off pieces from the set of his show “The Colbert Report” (last episode was December 18, 2014) to raise the funds. I believe the success came from the vehicle he used for distribution. In full disclosure, he’s on the Board of the crowdfunding site “Donorschoose.org”, and this was the conduit for his generosity. He promised to fund all South Carolina teacher requests for mini-grants. Teachers log in to the site and briefly describe a project they would love to implement if money could be found. An average project costs $689.00. iPads, band instruments, art supplies, and other modest wishes came true for hard working teachers; elegant, simple, and effective philanthropy.

The vehicle chosen by Bill and Melinda Gates provides specific grants to school systems. Districts apply formally through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By virtue of its size (36 billion with a b dollars), it has become a force of nature in the education reform arena. Controversy and scrutiny always swirls around entities like this; one complaint is that Bill and Melinda are too political and they are trying to manipulate policies that are not in their area of expertise.  However, the Foundation has matured over time and the impact of the funds is being felt in mostly positive ways in schools all over the country.

Mr. Zuckerberg, (at the risk of being unkind), had no idea what he was getting into. His motives were pure, but he wanted to tinker in areas where hiring and paychecks were being decided. The district hired consultants and experts to come in to create a more flexible hiring environment, especially in the area of teacher seniority. Enter the state and federal government with their laws and regulations, and teachers’ unions, with their rules and regulations. Greater minds (and his is pretty great) have been working on these issues for many years, with only some success. In most school districts, a senior teacher is given protections and other options they have earned over time. “Don’t mess with (my) seniority”.

There is no question that teacher hiring and firing regulations need to be rebuilt to be more beneficial to the children. If we can all use that as our umbrella for decision-making, we will be on the right track. These decisions, however, always become mired in money (are we surprised?) Teacher and administrator salaries, though never very high, have come a long way over the years, largely due to strong unions and bargaining. It cannot be mandated from outside.

There’s a video on CSPAN that features a book discussion about this project. “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” by Dale Russakoff provides readers with a thorough look at what went wrong.

Zuckerberg, over a five-year period was hoping to:

  • expand charter schools,
  • get rid of weak  teachers whose evaluations were negative,
  • judge other teachers by student test scores,
  • reward them,
  • and streamline school districts to make them more business-like.

If you’re a teacher in a public school system, you are probably wincing right now. He had waded into quicksand, and the grant initiative was ultimately and unfortunately deemed a failure. There were other players here, to be fair to Zuckerberg. There was a governor who wants to be president (Chris Christie), and a Mayor who is now a Senator (Cory Booker). There were others to be examined as well. The lessons to be learned are the winners in this story.

Resources for this topic:

So, what could you do with $100,000,000 for your schools?
I’d really love to know. You may network with me by leaving a comment below.


This entry was posted in Grant Research, Grant Writing on by .

About Neva Fenno

Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS, has been a special education teacher, school library media specialist, curriculum specialist and grants manager for several urban school districts in New York and Massachusetts for 30 years. As grants manager for 7 years, she managed up to $28,000,000 a year in federal, state, foundation and corporate grants from application through fiscal administration. She has hundreds of stories to tell, not all successes, but from each story there is a lesson to be learned.

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