School & District Management Opinion

$100 Million, Mark Zuckerberg, and a Controversial Education Experiment

By Dale Russakoff — September 09, 2015 13 min read
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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff’s just-published book that details the backstory of how two public figures—a mayor and a governor—attracted an infusion of private money in an attempt to transform a flagging school district. One of the most closely watched philanthropic gifts to public education, the $100 million commitment to Newark, N.J.'s public schools by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ultimately fell short of its ambitious goal. But the book sheds light on how then-Mayor Cory Booker, an African-American Democrat, and recently elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a white suburban Republican, undertook a controversial drive to change the city’s school system, including by expanding charter schools, weakening tenure protections, and evaluating teachers based on student test scores. Their aim—and Zuckerberg’s—was to “create a model for solving the education crisis in all of urban America,” says Russakoff.

In July of 2010, Cory Booker found himself in the company of billionaires and multimillionaires at the posh and secluded Sun Valley Resort, in the mountains of central Idaho, for a ritual mixing of big business and pleasure. The invitation-only extravaganza of deal-making and schmoozing for media moguls and investors, hosted by New York banker Herbert Allen, drew the richest and most famous people in the business. That year’s guest list for the first time included 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Booker had his sights set on Zuckerberg to fund his and Christie’s plans for the Newark schools. As it turned out, Zuckerberg wanted to meet him, too.

The Newark mayor had an extraordinary social network of his own, but for this particular connection, Booker once again had his Yale Law School classmate Ed Nicoll to thank.

When Booker was still a city councilman, Nicoll introduced him to one of his investors, a venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick. Booker remembered Nicoll briefing him: “This guy’s a diehard Democrat and also hates the failures in education and heard that you believed in everything from vouchers to charter schools, whatever, and wants to meet you.” They clicked in the first meeting.

In what turned into a networking trifecta for Booker, Bodnick later married Michelle Sandberg, whose sister Sheryl became chief operating officer of Facebook in 2008. In mid-2010, according to Booker, Bodnick tipped him that the Facebook founder was planning a significant philanthropic move, “something big” in education. Then Bodnick learned that Sandberg, Zuckerberg, and Booker all would be at Allen’s annual Sun Valley mixer, and Booker got another alert. “He said, ‘Make sure you connect with Sheryl and her husband out there, because they want to connect you with Mark,’ ” Booker said.

As always at the Sun Valley event, the panel discussions featured some of the most interesting and compelling people in the country and the world. It was not surprising that a discussion on the future of cities included leaders from centers of commerce, culture, and influence, like Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, and Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. The third panelist, whose city had long ago lost its wealth and influence, was Booker. Like Zuckerberg, Booker was a first-timer at Sun Valley, and he poked fun at the incongruity of his presence. He felt, he said, like a community college sitting beside the Harvard and Yale of mayors.

But the incongruity was what made Booker intriguing. He was in fact completely at ease among the rich and powerful. For years, he had been a regularly featured guest at Manhattan celebrity galas and Hollywood premieres, a sought-after speaker around the country at political fundraisers, charity events, and college commencements, a frequent chatting partner on late-night talk shows. Wherever he traveled, he made rich people want to write checks for causes in Newark: Brad Pitt financed housing for low-income veterans, Jon Bon Jovi for HIV/AIDS patients, Oprah Winfrey for battered women. Shaquille O’Neal was developing a 12-screen movie complex and high-rise apartments. Even United States senators marveled at the way this mayor of an impoverished city coaxed money from the wealthiest donors.

Dale Russakoff, a veteran reporter for The Washington Post, chronicles the story of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to the Newark public schools in her recently published book.

Booker and Zuckerberg met at a buffet dinner one night on the deck of Herbert Allen’s Sun Valley townhouse, overlooking a golf course and a stream. They shared a table with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and media executive Michael Eisner, among others. Afterward, Zuckerberg invited Booker on a walk and explained that he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make the difference and create a national model. Booker responded with a pitch that showcased what made him such a dazzling fundraiser.

The mayor of Newark understood well that venture philanthropists were looking for a “proof point,” a city where they could deploy multiple initiatives and demonstrate measurable improvement in poor children’s achievement. He already had pitched Newark to many of them as fertile ground for charter growth, emphasizing its proximity to a huge teaching talent pool across the Hudson River and its manageable size in contrast to New York, where then-Chancellor Joel Klein, a hero of reformers, had shaken the school system’s foundations but hadn’t begun to reach all 1.2 million students. In raising $20 million for the Newark Charter School Fund in 2008, Booker had emphasized the success of some of Newark’s earliest charter schools and New Jersey’s generous school funding formula—more than twice the amount per pupil as in California, for example. Now, he was pitching Zuckerberg on the next stage of the vision—Newark as a proof point for turning around an entire school district.

Walking side by side with Zuckerberg, Booker began, “The question facing cities is not ‘Can we deal with our most difficult problems—recidivism, health care, education?’ The real question is ‘Do we have the will?’ ”Why not, he went on, take the best models in the country for success in education and bring them all to Newark? “There’s no way we can’t count to 45,000 [Newark children of school age] and get all of them into high-performing environments,” the mayor later recalled. The former Stanford football player, big of build, with shaved head, hazel eyes, and overpowering optimism, added, with the confidence of a born winner: “You could flip a whole city!”

“I just thought, this is the guy I want to invest in,” Zuckerberg would later tell reporters. “This is a person who can create change.”

Zuckerberg was disarmingly open about how little he knew at the time about philanthropy. He recently had joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give away half of his fortune in his lifetime, but unlike older billionaires, he had little time to devote to a foundation. “Running a company is a full-time job,” he explained, somewhat unnecessarily. He said his goal, in addition to helping the Newark schools, was to learn from his experience and become a better philanthropist in the process.

While his personal experience in public education was limited—he’d started out in public schools, graduated from the elite prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, and dropped out of Harvard as a sophomore—Zuckerberg was drawn to the cause by the experiences of his wife, Priscilla Chan, then his girlfriend, and her passion for children. They decided to embark on philanthropy as a couple, and when they began talking about it, early in 2010, she was in medical school, preparing to become a pediatrician in community medicine to care for underserved children. She had no more time for active philanthropy than he did.

Sitting beside Zuckerberg in his glass-walled meeting room at Facebook, Chan said her own life experiences drew her to the challenges facing inner-city children. She came from a “disadvantaged” family, as she described it, in which her Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant parents worked 18 hours a day to build a better life for their three daughters, her father running a Chinese restaurant, her mother working two jobs. Her grandparents lived with them and helped care for her. Two of her public school teachers, to whom she remains close, saw her potential and helped put her on a path that eventually led to Harvard. Chan was the first in her extended family to go to college, followed soon by her two younger sisters.

She recalled her first days at Harvard as overwhelming, but she found an anchor by volunteering in an after-school program for children in two housing projects in the low-income Dorchester section of Boston. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, these kids are me, except I got a lucky break somewhere along the way and things turned out really well. I should help these kids because this is me, and maybe one or two small things can sort of change their trajectory.’”

She teared up and stopped to compose herself. “I always cry talking about this,” she said. Silently, Zuckerberg got up and fetched her a box of Kleenex. “Just power through it,” he said under his breath, pumping his fist like a cross between an athletic trainer and a comic. She laughed, pressed a tissue to her eyes, and continued the story.

Chan worked all four years of college in the program, running it for the last three. More than academics, it involved helping children navigate the day-in, day-out challenges of growing up in poverty, from neighborhood rivalries to health issues.

Zuckerberg invited Booker on a walk and explained that he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education."

In medical school, she became active in Pediatric Leaders for the Underserved, and as a resident she cared for foster children at the county safety-net hospital in San Francisco. Again she felt a personal connection. “All these Hispanic immigrant families in my clinic in the hospital—I’m like, ‘You are like me, except we have completely different lives,’ ” she said. As for her own “completely different lives”—her childhood versus life as a billionaire—she said, “Anyone would be shocked. You don’t have to have quite the same background I did.”

A different experience of Chan’s influenced Zuckerberg’s view of education and Newark. She spent a year between college and medical school teaching science in a private school in San Jose, and “when she went to be a teacher, coming out of Harvard, a lot of people acted like she was going to do charity,” Zuckerberg said. “My own view was you’re going to have more of an impact than a lot of these other people who are going into jobs that are paying a lot more. And that’s kind of a basic economic inefficiency. Society should value these roles more, and what are the things that are getting in the way of that?”

His hope was to make teaching in an urban school—one of the most important jobs in America, as he saw it—as attractive to the most talented college graduates as working at Facebook. He couldn’t succeed without having his pick of the best people in the business. Why would it be different for public schools?

“Economically, I think it’s probably the most important problem in the world,” Zuckerberg said of the state of public education for the poorest children.

Chan cast a questioning look his way, smiling as if in amusement. “We’re different,” she explained. He saw the problem as systemic and economic, while she viewed it from the ground level, through the needs of individual children. In her view, investing in children had value for its own sake. “It’s the coolest thing, because you never know what they’re going to do later on and you can’t really follow up on it. You just sort of have this idea, ‘Who knows what that kid’s going to do?’ ”

In emails and documents Booker and Zuckerberg sent back and forth after their talks in Sun Valley, their stated goal was not simply to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America—and to do it in five years. Booker argued that by succeeding in a district as challenging as Newark, Zuckerberg would emerge with a model that he could take to one city after another.

In August, Booker sent Zuckerberg a proposal, prepared with the pro bono help of McKinsey consultants. It was titled “Creating a National Model of Educational Transformation.” On the cover was a color photograph of Booker surrounded by African-American children, all reaching skyward, as was the mayor. The document referred repeatedly to Newark’s potential as a national model. “Our youth population is manageable in size, making Newark an ideal laboratory for community change,” it said. Newark would “coordinate a critical mass of local and national partners with proven models of excellence to deliver high-impact programs and best practices.” The last page listed four criteria for success, only one in boldface: “Blue-print for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform the lives of its youth.” The language of national models left little room for attention to the unique problems of Newark, its schools, or its children.

A few weeks later, Zuckerberg invited Booker to Palo Alto to talk more, and they continued the conversation by phone, in secret (the name on Booker’s private schedule was “Mr. Z.”). No one in the Newark schools or local politics was to know what was afoot. The talks went late into the night, with Sheryl Sandberg on the line as well as Booker’s chief education adviser, De’Shawn Wright. “The mayor, Sheryl, Mark, and I were on the phone at two or three o’clock in the morning, talking about education reform and what are the levers of change and how do you do it systemically and what are the hurdles with politics, policy, and legislation that would get us to this utopia of education,” Wright said.

Zuckerberg made clear that his primary goal was to find a way to attract, nurture, and handsomely reward top teachers. Like almost every school district in the country, Newark paid teachers based on how long they had held their jobs and how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither correlated with increased effectiveness. In other words, teachers who transformed students’ lives received the same pay as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wondered aloud about circumstances that applied to almost all of America’s 3.3 million public school teachers.

The world Zuckerberg worked in could not have provided a sharper contrast to the Newark public schools. At Facebook, he sat in a gymnasium-sized room filled with coders in their 20s, many of them pursued by tech companies around the world with offers of signing bonuses that dwarfed the annual salaries of experienced Newark teachers. Around the workstations were red-lettered motivational signs: STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING. MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS. DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID? In the Newark schools, which Zuckerberg had never visited, nothing moved fast, much was already broken, and most people were afraid of change.

A month after their conversations in Sun Valley, Booker gave Zuckerberg a six-point agenda drawn from the McKinsey document, which in turn was based on the original plan Booker had devised for Christie. It called for a data system to track student progress and hold everyone accountable for it; new school models, including charters, single-sex schools, and schools for students at risk of dropping out; recruitment and training of top-quality educators for future openings; a community-awareness program to build public support and services for disaffected youth. The top agenda item for Zuckerberg was a new labor contract that would significantly reward Newark teachers who improved their students’ performance, a shift he believed would raise the status of the profession. “Over the long term, that’s the only way they’re going to get the very best people, a lot of the very best people,” he concluded.

Booker asked Zuckerberg for $100 million over five years. The mayor conceded, however, that he did not know at the time what the initiatives would cost. He chose the number largely for its size and the public attention it would draw to the effort. “We knew it had to be big; we both thought it had to be bold, eye-catching,” said Booker. Zuckerberg agreed, with the caveat that Booker would have to match it with another $100 million from other donors. Booker didn’t blink, although this meant raising a king-sized amount of money in an economy still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008.

In late summer 2010, Booker called Christie with the $100 million news.

Excerpted from The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as How Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Gift Found Its Way to Newark’s Public Schools


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