Remember Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's generous, $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J.'s failing public school system?

Mr. Zuckerberg is to be commended for his desire to help improve public education and for the willingness to spend a lot of money in the endeavor. Unfortunately, the project was a dismal failure.

Not much came of it. IWF Senior Fellow Naomi Schaefer Riley and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow James Pierson explain in today's Wall Street Journal why the experiment didn't work–and why Zuckerberg could have accomplished more good for kids if he'd given the money for scholarships instead of pouring it into Newark's abysmally-run school system:

The Facebook founder negotiated his gift with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker in 2010, and it flowed into Newark’s public-school system shortly thereafter. The bulk of the funds supported consultants and the salaries and pensions of teachers and administrators, so the donation only reinforced the bureaucratic and political ills that have long plagued public education in the Garden State.

As Schaefer Riley and Pierson note, this was not the first and will not be the last attempt to improve public education by a private donor. They point to the Ford Foundation's effort to decentralize New York City's public schools by creating community boards with the power to hire and fire teachers. This was anathema to unions whose leaders called a devastating strike and put finished to that.  

It was an early sign that two great liberal causes—reform and unionization—could not be reconciled. But many foundations and individual donors haven’t learned the lesson.

Another donor to public education was Walter Annenberg, who in 1993 gave $500 million to public schools. Annenberg predicted that his money “plus a bit of goodwill and social engineering could nudge American public schooling into new effectiveness.” With matching grants, the Annenberg largesse led to spending around $1.5 billion on public education–and it led to no discernible improvement.

The report [by by the Consortium on Chicago School Research] did not explain why the campaign failed, but the reason is fairly obvious: The funds wound up in the hands of the unions, administrators and political figures who created the problems in the first place.

The reason these contributions don't make a difference is mainly that they go for the kinds of bureaucracies that have made public education such a mess in the first place. But there are some philanthropists who are learning from the failures:

In 2003, Michael Bailin, when he was president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, delivered a refreshing lecture at Georgetown University that described some of his philanthropy’s missteps.

“The problem, in a nutshell, was this: In all of those programs, in education and justice and child welfare and neighborhood improvement, we were trying to reform huge, complex, entrenched, multi-billion-dollar public systems—with a staff of 25 people and around $25 million a year in grants.”

He went on: “We were fighting battles that had tested the power and wealth of serial U.S. Congresses and presidencies. It was a battle of Homeric proportions fought with Lilliputian resources. How could we ever imagine that we could accomplish anything so significant in our lifetimes? And how would we even know if we did?”

Fortunately, Mr. Bailin dismantled some of the vast social re-engineering structure that his predecessors had put in place and instead backed some successful nonprofits. Other philanthropists have done the same. In 1998, John Walton and Ted Forstmann each gave $50 million to fund scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. More than 140,000 students have attended schools with graduation and college matriculation rates that exceed 90% instead of going to the failing schools in their neighborhoods.

Earlier this summer, hedge-fund manager John Paulson pledged $8.5 million to the Success Academy charter-school network, where 93% of students are proficient in math, compared with 35% of their traditional public-school peers. His gift will allow more such schools to open. The financier Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, a former attorney, donated $40 million to help endow the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to needy children attending Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York.

Philanthropists will not be able to change education and improve student outcomes unless they can circumvent the bureaucracies and interest groups that are responsible for the problems they hope to solve. If they act independently, though, their money has the potential to alter the lives not only of individual students, but entire communities.

Terrific piece. I urge you to read it.