(Reuters) - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s gift of $120 million to the San Francisco Bay Area public school system on Friday marks his second attempt at putting huge sums of his own money into turning around failing schools.
This time, he can only hope to come under less criticism.
Four years ago, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to reform the chronically ailing Newark, New Jersey, school system, appearing on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a gift he hoped would turn that city’s schools into an example of educational excellence nationwide.
Today, with almost all the funds spent, critics say his efforts in Newark have been misdirected, with much of the money going to programs that have minimal long-term benefit.
“The whole Newark thing was the big celebrity event - dump the money, then go back to the other coast,” said Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, in New Jersey.
Zuckerberg said on Friday in a San Jose Mercury News essay written with his wife, Priscilla Chan, that he has “learned a lot about what makes a successful effort” but that it was also too early to determine the impact of the Newark initiative.
Education experts say the Bay Area funds appear better targeted than in Newark, where most of the $100 million donated four years ago has been spent without major improvements in student scores.
Reforms there have prompted protests and criticism that the bulk of the donated funds went for teacher contracts and charter schools, creating what detractors say are financially unsustainable obligations for the school system.
In the Bay Area, the money appears to be targeted differently. Zuckerberg said much of it, at least to start, would be used to upgrade technology and train educators.
“The initial grants will go toward initiatives that provide computers and connectivity in schools, as well as teacher training and parent outreach to make these a really valuable addition to the learning experience,” he wrote.
The Newark and Bay Area schools appear equally in need.
Newark’s schools suffered so much from low test scores and falling enrollment that in 1995 a judge ordered the state to take control. Since then, more than a dozen schools have been closed, and students in the poorest districts use classrooms with crumbling ceilings and peeling walls.
Zuckerberg’s latest donation will initially be spent in three school districts - San Francisco, Redwood City and Ravenswood City - which serve nearly 70,000 students, with more than 80 percent receiving free or discounted school meals.
The average student in Ravenswood district is outperformed by about 80 percent of students nationwide, according to comparative data compiled by the George W. Bush Institute.
Will Hodges, a spokesman for the Bay Area project said Zuckerberg’s team learned from the Newark project, which remained a “work in progress.”
“The most important thing they’ve learned is to bring in the local community to be involved with their work, to focus on the community’s needs,” Hodges said.
In Newark, the money has mostly been spent. While graduation rates have risen to 67 percent in 2013, from 54 percent in 2009, tests scores in reading and math have hardly budged, according to the state Department of Education.
Critics say the money could have been put to better use. For example, it could have been used to pay for infrastructure or transportation or even to set up an endowment to generate annual returns.
Out of $83 million spent, $31 million went for retroactive teacher pay and $17.5 million towards a new teacher contract pegged to student performance. Experts say there is no funding in place to continue to subsidize the merit pay system once the Facebook cash is gone.
Newark residents and education experts also question the hiring of expensive consultants, some of whom charge $1,000 a day.
The foundation says more than $4 million has gone directly toward creating new charter schools, allowing students to choose where they want to attend class.
But with thousands of students now able to go to a school miles from home, Newark officials have scrambled to provide busing, a potentially great cost for a city facing a $93 million budget shortfall.
“Can you fathom it? Putting a 5 or 6-year-old child on a public bus in Newark?” said Frank Adao, president of the Newark Parents Union, whose son is a 6th grader.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Gunna Dickson