Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Friday announced a $100 million donation to Newark public schools in a move that could enhance his reputation just before the opening on an unflattering movie about him, "The Social Network."
Zuckerberg told Oprah Winfrey that he picked Newark for the gift "because I believe in these guys."
"These guys" are Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat. All three appeared with Zuckerberg on a live episode Friday of Winfrey's TV show.
Zuckerberg's donation is the Internet tycoon's first major gift. Wearing a gray T-shirt, black jacket and tennis shoes, Zuckerberg explained to Winfrey why he chose to make his philanthropic debut in education.
"Why education? Because every child deserves a good education and right now that's not happening," Zuckerberg said, adding he wants other children to have the same opportunities he had.
Zuckerberg said his gift is a challenge grant. Booker said he is lining up money from other foundations, too.
The goal is to raise $100 million more to match what Zuckerberg is to contribute over five years through his new foundation called Startup: Education. Booker also will raise $50 million more to serve the "disaffected youth" of the city.
Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in education grants, including $100 million for the school system in Tampa, Fla., and $90 million for the Memphis, Tenn., district. The Gates Foundation also has given than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years.
The Newark district, which has about 40,000 students and a $940 million annual budget, has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings, and was taken over by the state in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement, including the spending of taxpayer money by school board members on cars and restaurant meals.
Few details were disclosed Friday morning about how Zuckerberg's money is to be spent.
Winfrey did advocate hiring Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of schools in Washington D.C., as Newark's next schools superintendent. Other New Jersey education advocates have suggested the same move.
"I'm so proud of these guys, and they are doing the right thing by the children of our country," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "We have to put politics and ideology aside. We have to invest in our children."
Zuckerberg grew up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 2002 and attended Harvard before dropping out to work full time on Facebook. He has no connection to Newark other than knowing Booker, a charismatic 41-year-old politician who has the ear of President Barack Obama and has helped the city get major donations from Winfrey and New Jersey's Jon Bon Jovi.
The announcement comes a week before "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.
Winfrey asked Zuckerberg about the film.
"Oh, well, I mean it's a movie, it's fun," Zuckerberg said. "A lot of it is fiction, but even the filmmakers will say that. ... I can promise you, this is my life so I know it's not that dramatic. The last six years have been a lot coding and focus and hard work, but maybe it would be fun to remember it as partying and all this crazy drama, so you know who knows? Maybe it will be an interesting story."
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. Christie fired the state's education commissioner in the aftermath.
The donation also sets the stage for Christie's plans to announce statewide education reforms next week.