The world’s most innovative community shouldn’t also be a home for struggling public schools. Today Priscilla and I are announcing a $120 million commitment to support efforts to improve education for underserved communities in the Bay Area.

That begins an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News written by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announcing their $120 million donation in the education world, which is larger than the $100 million Zuckerberg donated to Newark, N.J., schools in 2010. The Bay Area donation is the latest gift by a billionaire to reform public schools in a new wave of philanthropy that has in recent years actually helped drive the public policy agenda. While many applaud the education philanthropy, many others express big concerns about wealthy private individuals having a role in setting public policy and encouraging the privatization of public education.

The Newark donation came after Zuckerberg met then-Mayor Cory Booker and decided: “This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a real person who can create this change.” As part of the deal, Booker had to raise $100 million in matching funds. Even with all that money, the Newark experiment hasn’t gone well. In fact, some call it a flop.

The man Zuckerberg invested in isn’t mayor anymore; he became a U.S. senator in 2013, even as the school reform effort was floundering. Consultants got at least one-fifth of the money; millions more went to pay for a new teachers’ contract that linked student test scores to teacher pay; and a reform superintendent appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in the state-run district was so unpopular that dozens of clergy sent a letter in April to the governor saying that the superintendent’s efforts were creating “unnecessary instability” and that they were “concerned about the level of public anger we see growing in the community.”
This month, the mayoral election was won by Ras Baraka, a city councilman and former school principal, whose campaign was focused on bashing Superintendent Cami Anderson’s reform plan. Anderson had called for closing some traditional schools and opening up more charters, laying off more than 1,000 teachers and hiring Teach For America recruits to fill some open spots and creating a single enrollment system for Newark’s 21 charters and 71 traditional public schools.

According to a piece by Dale Rusakoff in the New Yorker, which details Zuckerberg’s gift and the politics surrounding its failure to do much to lift student achievement:

…More than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Here’s how Zuckerberg and Chan described the reform effort in Newark in their op-ed Thursday:

In Newark, a lot of the work we started is still underway, but we’ve already seen some good results. Newark now has the leading teacher contract in the country that was developed with teachers to reward good performance. New district and charter schools run by organizations with a track record of success have started, as well as 50 new principals. Across the district, the graduation rate has grown by 10%. It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.

It should be noted that Anderson sought to waive the hailed teacher contract to achieve her reform vision when the district ran into budget problems (even with all the reform cash).

As for the new donation, the Zuckerberg/Chan op-ed says:

The commitment we’re announcing today is our effort to change this. We’re providing $120 million through the Startup:Education fund, and over the next five years they’ll be working to give educators the resources to innovate in the classroom and support students in underserved communities. There are two main parts of this work. One part will be working with partners to start new district and charter schools that give people more high quality choices for their education. The other part is listening to the needs of local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students that others miss. What they told us is that their priorities are encouraging innovation in the classroom, helping to train a new generation of leaders and supporting student development.
This is exactly how we’re focusing our investments. The first $5 million of this fund will be used to support priorities in mid-peninsula school districts — the Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto/Belle Haven, Redwood City School District and several other high need communities in San Francisco. The initial grants will go towards 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. Funds will also support leadership opportunities for students, more effective transitions for students moving from middle school to high school, and leadership training for principals.

While many see billionaires such as Zuckerberg doing a public good by putting their fortunes to work to help others, many others worry about the consequences. In past decades philanthropists generally donated money to organizations and let them decide how to spend money; today’s donors have their own preferences for how their cash is spent. Vast private donations have brought public dollars with them, giving America’s wealthiest people power over the  public agenda that some don’t think is healthy.

“Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough,” Robert W. Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, which is part of an initiative to boost funding for basic research, told the the New York Times in a story  about the privatization of science by wealthy philanthropists, some of them the same people behind education reform. They include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Koch brothers.

According to the Associated Press, Zuckerberg, 30, and Chan, 29, a doctor, made the largest charitable gift on record for 2013 — a $1.1 billion donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Zuckerberg and Chan said they learned lessons from their Newark experience. Let’s see.