Facebook founder tells Winfrey why he’s friending Newark, NJ, schools with $100M donation

Friday, September 24, 2010

Facebook CEO makes $100M gift to NJ school

CHICAGO — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced a $100 million donation to Newark public schools.

Zuckerberg told talk show host Oprah Winfrey on Friday that he picked Newark for the gift “because I believe in these guys.”

“These guys” are Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat. They appeared with Zuckerberg on a live episode of the “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The announcement comes just ahead of the release of “The Social Network.” The movie paints an unflattering portrait of Zuckerberg.

The Newark district has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings. It was taken over by the state in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Education in New Jersey’s biggest city could be in for a big change — and not just because of the $100 million stock donation Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is expected to announce Friday on Oprah Winfrey’s show.

As part of the deal, the state is expected to give Newark Mayor Cory Booker a major role in overseeing the state-run school district.

Booker, like Gov. Chris Christie, is an advocate of major changes to school systems, including paying teachers partly based on how well their students perform on tests, opening more publicly funded charter schools and using public money to provide scholarships for students to attend private schools.

It’s not clear which of those ideas might be part of the forthcoming changes to the Newark schools — but changes are likely.

Zuckerberg was expected to appear Friday on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” along with Christie and Booker, to lay out their plan.

The donation instantly establishes Zuckerberg as one of high-tech’s biggest philanthropists and comes just ahead of the release of “The Social Network,” a movie that paints an unflattering portrait of the boy wonder of the Internet.

The arrangement brings together the young entrepreneur, Newark’s celebrated Democratic mayor and a governor who has become a star of the Republican Party. And it underscores how the remaking of the nation’s urban public schools has become a popular cause among young philanthropists.

“What you’re seeing is for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980,” said Derrell Bradford, the executive director of the Newark-based education reform group Excellent Education for Everyone. “Newark public schools are like the new Live Aid.”

Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in education grants, included $100 million for the school system in Tampa, Fla., and $90 million for the Memphis, Tenn., district. The Gates Foundation also has given than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years.

The Newark district, which has about 40,000 students and a $940 million annual budget, has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings, and was taken over by the state in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement, including the spending of taxpayer money by school board members on cars and restaurant meals.

Zuckerberg grew up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 2002 and attended Harvard before dropping out to work full time on Facebook. He has no connection to Newark other than knowing Booker, a charismatic 41-year-old politician who has the ear of President Barack Obama and has helped the city get major donations from Winfrey and New Jersey’s Jon Bon Jovi.

According to The New York Times, Zuckerberg and Booker met a conference over the summer.

The donation was first reported Wednesday night by The Star-Ledger of Newark. An official familiar with the plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because those involved were told not to steal the thunder from Winfrey’s show.

But that didn’t stop Christie and Booker from hinting about it on their Twitter accounts. Booker tweeted: “Looking forward to Oprah on Friday! Please tune in to learn more about what’s going on in Newark.” Christie replied, “See you in Chicago,” adding: “Great things to come for education in Newark.”

Some suggested that altruism was not the only thing driving the gift.

The announcement comes a week before “The Social Network” opens widely. The movie, whose tagline is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” portrays Zuckerberg as taking the idea for Facebook from other Harvard students.

“I hate to be cynical and there are few districts in the nation that couldn’t use an infusion of cash more than Newark,” wrote blogger Christopher Dawson on ZDNet. But the timing of the announcement, “on Oprah no less, feels a little too staged.”

Forbes.com on Thursday asked readers: “Was the gift heartfelt or cunning PR?”

For Christie, the deal may be a way to recover from the biggest misstep of his administration so far: Last month, the state missed out on a $400 million federal education grant because of a simple error on its application. Christie fired the state’s education commissioner in the aftermath.

The donation also sets the stage for Christie’s plans to announce statewide education reforms next week.

Mulvihill reported from Trenton. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Beth DeFalco in Trenton and Donna Blankinship in Seattle and Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay in New York.

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