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The Rule Of Law

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[Influencing this post: Facebook-Driven Newark Overhaul Lurches Forward - EdWeek, Oct. 1, 2010]

Recently, the $100 million Zuckerberg conditional gift to schools in Newark hit a snag. Turns out that a major condition of the gift -- that Mayor Booker would be given control of the Newark school system -- is quite possibly against New Jersey state law. Turns out the Gov. Christie and all the interested parties knew this. Gov. Christie, it seems, had figured out a way around that. He was going to name Mayor Booker a "special assistant" to the Governor in charge of Newark schools.

It was a move that was was highly questionable legally. And the Education Law Center said so. The Education Law Center has nearly 40 years of history fighting for urban school children in New Jersey. It was the Education Law Center that brought the Abbott v. Burke case to the state's Supreme Court, resulting in a historic school funding court decision that brought something close to equitable funding to impoverished districts. The point is, the ELC folks have skin in the game, and they have for a very long time. And the Education Law Center took the highly challenging stance of questioning the legality of Mr. Zuckerberg's gift under the rule of law.

Not surprisingly, not everyone was pleased with their actions. Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark group co-founded by Mayor Booker that advocates tuition vouchers and charter schools, was quoted in EdWeek:

"These people are punks...the people who have controlled public education in Newark for the last 30 years don't even know what the plan is. They just know that if they don't come up with it, it isn't acceptable to them."

This level of dialogue doesn't help anything, and it serves to further inflame the education debate. There are many different ideas about every aspect of school reform, from school structures to pedagogy to funding. There are good and bad actors on every side of the equation. And while $100 million is an incredible amount of money, conditional gifts should still be treated with healthy skepticism, because usually they are given in advocacy of one side of the debate or the other. It rarely makes for good public relations, and it's far too easy to characterize as a "punk" move, but making sure that $100 million shouldn't buy an exemption to state law.

There is, of course, a way to ensure that Mayor Booker has the ability to direct changes to the Newark schools in the manner he sees fit. The law can be changed. That's how this works. And I'm guessing that a $100 million gift to Newark might make a lot of New Jersey legislators willing to reconsider their votes. If not, then Mr. Zuckerberg has the right to consider how he spends his money. And he can consider the public relations issues around rescinding the gift... and he can decide if he wants to be perceived as someone who believes that his money can circumvent the rule of law.

Because, in the end, we shouldn't do an end around state law. It's a bad idea in general (which many former Jersey politicians can attest), but it's a particularly bad idea when it comes to schools because it teaches kids that authority and the rule of law is something to be ignored at worst and winked at at best when you really want something. Worse, when politicians and businessmen conspire to subvert the democratic and legal process, we send a message to kids that if you have enough money, the rules of society do not apply.

And if a major goal of public education is to help students become fully realized civic and civil participants of our democratic society, it is important that their role models -- educators, politicians, businessmen among them -- live by the lessons they would hope to teach.