Zuckerberg's donation could help the long-struggling school system (AP).

Zuckerberg's donation could help the long-struggling school system (AP).

Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old wunderkind behind Facebook, is making a move to become a player in philanthropy just before the opening of a film that portrays him as less than charitable.

The recipient of his $100 million donation–thought to be the biggest of his young life–is the Newark public schools, a long-struggling district that could use the money to become a laboratory for reforms.

The donation is being announced Sept. 24 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 cache of the cause of remaking urban public schools, an issue that has long confounded educators and advocates.

“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.”

Zuckerberg is not the first person to get rich on technology and then donate some of his wealth to urban schools.

Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in education grants, along with $45 million for research into effective teaching. The grants included $100 million to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., and $90 million to Memphis City Schools. The Gates Foundation also has given than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years, primarily for a project to transform its high schools into small schools.

An official familiar with the Newark plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Sept. 23. 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 late on Sept. 22 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 donation, 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 deal also sets the stage for Christie’s announcement next week on his plans to reform the state’s schools.

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

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.

“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. “However, the timing of the announcement, coinciding with a high-profile return of district control from the state of New Jersey to the municipality of Newark, on Oprah no less, feels a little too staged.”

Forbes.com was asking readers: “Was the gift heartfelt or cunning PR?”

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura