Facebook Founder to Give $100 Million to Newark Schools

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The education reform movement might be shifting its headquarters to Newark, N.J., as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal disclosed today that the troubled city’s school system will receive a $100 million private donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Officials would not discuss the reported gift, which is to be announced publicly on Friday’s Oprah Winfrey Show. But perhaps as significant as the money to Newark is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) decision to yield partial control of Newark Public Schools to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, 15 years after the state took over the miserably failing district.

Booker met Zuckerberg, who has no New Jersey connections, this summer, and soon thereafter the two began working on a partnership to fix Newark schools.

With an emerging national presence thanks to a multiple-city U.S. media blitz and fundraising tour, there are reports that Booker is close to raising $100 million to match Zuckerberg’s gift, meaning their combined contributions would account for one-quarter of the district’s $800 million annual operating budget.   

“Newark for a long time has been a city with enormous promise but with a public school system that by and large fails many of the kids,” said Kevin Ryan, who worked with Newark Public Schools for about 14 years and is currently president and CEO of New York-based Covenant House for homeless and runaway youth. “As exciting as the [Zuckerberg] private investment is, what’s more exciting is the governor’s willingness finally to let the mayor build a reform program that re-imagines public education in Newark.”

There is no word on how specifically the money will be spent, but to Ryan, formerly New Jersey’s child welfare commissioner, the mere fact that Newark schools will have to rely less on Trenton bureaucracy and more on a mayor whose national tour included discussions of increased charter schools, merit-based teacher compensation and other projects already under way in other cities, is reason enough for optimism.

To others involved in New Jersey education reform, the prospect of more funding brings a warning: “Money can evaporate very rapidly unless it’s used strategically,” said Eric J. Cooper, president of the National Urban Alliance, a national education improvement nonprofit in the fifth year of a partnership with Newark Public Schools. “It’s not just about funding on structural changes – in terms of building new facilities – the best strategic use potentially is to improve on how teachers teach and students learn.”

Cooper cautioned that a single new charter school alone can cost $1 million.

Speculation about the pace of reform in Newark is also being fueled by talk that Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee – who threw her support to her boss, Adrian Fenty, in the recent mayor’s race and lost – could be headed to Newark.

Rhee’s tenure is Washington is believed to be nearly over.  Vincent Gray, who defeated Fenty, has sparred with Rhee and much of his support came from teachers and others opposed to the reforms Rhee and Fenty have pushed forward.

Adding to the conjecture is the announcement earlier this month that Rhee’s predecessor in Washington, Clifford Janey, will not have his contract renewed as Newark Public Schools superintendent.

Some see a Rhee-Janey job swap.

Rhee, who since her 2007 hiring by Fenty has become a polarizing, risk-taking, high-profile public figure in the national education reform movement, has indicated she would not work for Gray. Gray and Rhee exited a 90-minute discussion today with no word on Rhee’s future, but Rhee refused to join Gray in a joint statement and was reported to be near tears as the two appeared before reporters.

Ryan and Cooper would not comment directly on the Rhee-to-Newark speculation, but Cooper noted that Rhee’s mentor and close ally is Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools, located just down the road from Newark.

“It would make for a very interesting social experiment to have both New York and New Jersey working on the same page,” Cooper said.

Representatives for Newark Public Schools did not return calls requesting comment on the reported Zuckerberg gift.