School & District Management

Facebook Founder Teams Up With Cory Booker & Co. on Newark Schools

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 24, 2010 4 min read
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An unlikely trio—a Democratic mayor, a Republican governor and an Internet phenom—have teamed up in an effort to make an equally unlikely city a national focus of education reform, and they hope, educational excellence.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, have launched an effort to change the long-beleaguered Newark school district.

The big announcement will air on The Oprah Winfrey Show today, but the trio got on the horn with more than 200 reporters a short while ago to share their hopes for this effort, which may soon bring $200 million over five years for Newark schools.

“We believe our city can lead the nation in showing what a district and community can do when it pulls together and puts our children at the center of our community focus,” Booker said.

Forbes magazine this week estimated the 26-year-old social-media network founder is worth $6.9 billion.

Zuckerberg’s true worth is hard to know—Facebook remains a private company despite many entreaties from conglomerates seeking to purchase it. The value, Forbes said, comes from the investment companies have made in Facebook in the past year in return for shares of ownership.

Zuckerberg’s donation is through the auspices of a new foundation he’s launched, Startup: Education, which he funded with $100 million of his own Facebook stock. The stock will be sold and liquefied to raise the funds for Startup: Education.

The goal, he said, is to give Booker and Christie the flexibility and resources they need to start new programs and build to scale existing ones with potential. Zuckerberg said he placed no restrictions on what the money could be used for, nor conditions on the types of reforms to be pursued.

While he likes the work of organizations like Teach For America and KIPP, the Facebook founder said he wanted to invest in a school district because it would be the place that could potentially be the largest lever for change. Newark, he said, “is a place ready for real reform that has great leaders.”

“I am really committed to making sure this works in Newark. I think we are going to learn a lot from seeing how this evolves,” he said.

Separately, Mayor Booker has created the Newark Education and Youth Development fund, a vehicle for raising $100 million to match Zuckerberg’s funds, as well as a separate $50 million for another youth effort.

Booker is no stranger to education reform. He led an effort that brought a $20 million charter school fund to the city and made Newark one of the most fertile grounds in the country for charters.

Joseph Del Grosso, President of the Newark Teachers Union, and Randi Weingarten, President of the parent American Federation of Teachers, released their own response to today’s news. It includes a theme familiar to anyone who has ever heard Weingarten speak: collaboration.

“To make the most of this opportunity, all of us have to work together, put aside our differences and get behind a shared vision of what Newark’s students need to succeed in college, life and careers,” they wrote. “The voices of frontline educators need to be respected and valued at every stage, especially when translating broad concepts into lesson plans, teaching methods, school conditions and resources that will affect students and teachers every day, in every classroom in every Newark school.”

Christie and Booker will jointly choose the next Newark superintendent. Booker has long sought mayoral control of schools, which have been state-run for the past 15 years. The governor still has authority over the schools, but has brokered a deal with Booker in lieu of the two pursuing a change to state laws to give the Newark mayor direct control of schools.

Christie said they will pick a new leader within a few months and that he and Booker, both with three-and-a-half years left in their terms, will need to demonstrate results in that time. Christie announced last month that he was not renewing the contract of Clifford B. Janey, who is in his third year as the superintendent there.

Skeptics have noted today’s big announcement comes as a less-than-flattering portrayal of Zuckberberg, Adam Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” opens today at the New York Film Festival and hits theaters Oct. 1. (Check out this must-read Zuckerberg profile by Jose Antonio Vargas in The New Yorker to learn more about the young Internet phenom.)

Zuckerberg said he was so concerned the two events would get conflated together that at one point he considered making the donation anonymously. Booker confirmed this, saying he lobbied hard against anonymity, noting it would make Newark residents skeptical and that many are already connected with Zuckerberg because they use Facebook every day.

What’s next? Booker said he would begin community discussions to help craft a plan for Newark’s schools that has buy-in and is based on the standards and aspirations of Brick City residents, noting that Newark’s most successful efforts come from grassroots support.

“This has to be a process of inclusion. This is the fundamental starting pillar,” the mayor said. “No individual can succeed. We must turn to the community. We must come together and assert our community standards values and principles for achievement.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.