New Jersey's largest school district is poised to become a laboratory for education reforms with the help of a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a gift thought to be the biggest contribution the 26-year-old entrepreneur has ever made.
The donation is being announced Friday on Oprah Winfrey's TV show in an arrangement that brings together the young Internet tycoon, Newark's celebrated Democratic mayor and a governor who has quickly become a star of the Republican party.
The unusual coalition is more evidence of the growing popularity of helping public schools with outside money.
"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."
The gift is the latest in a series of high-dollar donations to public schools.
In November, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in grants, along with $45 million for research into effective teaching. The grants included $100 million to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., $90 million to Memphis City Schools, $60 million to a coalition of charter school organizations in Los Angeles, and $40 million to Pittsburgh Public Schools.
An official familiar with the Newark plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the parties have been told not to usurp the announcement on Winfrey's show. The donation was initially reported Wednesday night by media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Star-Ledger of Newark.
The state Education Department, Facebook and the Newark mayor's office have been mum on the announcement, but that hasn't stopped Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory 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," then added: "Great things to come for education in Newark."
The announcement comes a week before the film "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.
Zuckerberg is worth $4.9 billion, according to Fortune magazine. His massive donation establishes him as a major player in philanthropy, placing him alongside others made wealthy by technology innovations, including Microsoft Corp. co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
It also will give Booker, a former Stanford football player who has rubbed elbows with many celebrities, some control over his city's school district. The schools have been state-run since 1995, but consistently have some of the state's lowest scores on standardized tests and worst graduation rates. The problems have continued to mount despite major infusions of funds from the state government, which has been under court order to improve schools in Newark and other impoverished New Jersey cities.
The deal also sets the stage for Christie's announcement next week on his plans to reform the state's schools.
Christie, like Booker, is an advocate of more publicly funded charter schools, using public money to send children to private schools and paying teachers partly based on how well their students perform.
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.
Education scholars and advocates will be watching closely.
Bradford, of the Newark-based education reform group, said: "If you are enormously successful, then you really have outlined a model of how you can use private philanthropy to break the status quo. And if you fail, you've given everybody a billion reasons never to try again."
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