NEWARK, N.J. – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is about to make a lot of new friends: The 26-year-old tycoon is pouring $100 million of his staggering fortune into Newark's blighted school system after hitting it off with the mayor of the poverty-stricken city.
The donation — which is being announced Friday on Oprah Winfrey's show — instantly establishes Zuckerberg as one of high-tech's biggest philanthropists and comes just ahead of the release of "The Social Network," a movie that paints an unflattering portrait of the boy wonder of the Internet.
The arrangement brings together the young entrepreneur, Newark's celebrated Democratic mayor and a governor who has become a star of the Republican Party. And it underscores how the remaking of the nation's urban schools has become a popular cause among young philanthropists.
"What you're seeing is for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the Newark-based education reform group Excellent Education for Everyone. "Newark public schools are like the new Live Aid."
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 more than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years.
Exactly how Zuckerberg's donation will be used in Newark — a school system with about 40,000 students and a budget this year of $940 million — has not been disclosed.
The district 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.
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 Mayor Cory 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.
According to The New York Times, Zuckerberg and Booker met at a conference over the summer and kept in touch.
The donation was first reported Wednesday night by The Star-Ledger of Newark. An official familiar with the plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because those involved were told not to steal the thunder from Winfrey's show.
But that didn't stop Gov. Chris Christie and 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," adding: "Great things to come for education in Newark."
Zuckerberg is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 35th wealthiest American, with a net worth of $6.9 billion. That makes him richer than Apple's Steve Jobs and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch. Facebook has 500 million users and is valued by Forbes at $23 billion.
Some suggested that altruism was not the only thing behind the gift.
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.
"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, a website devoted to technology news and commentary. But the timing of the announcement, "on Oprah no less, feels a little too staged."
Forbes.com asked readers: "Was the gift heartfelt or cunning PR?"
According to the official with knowledge of the deal, Christie won't give up state control of Newark's schools but will authorize Booker to carry out the education plan. Christie can still veto any moves.
Christie, like Booker, is an advocate of more publicly funded charter schools, using public money to send children to private schools and paying teachers partly according to how well students perform. Those ideas often make teachers unions bristle, though union officials in Newark declined to comment on the donation.
In Newark, people were excited about the gift, which The Wall Street Journal reported will be in the form of Facebook stock that can be sold on private exchanges and can be hard put a value on. Facebook is not publicly traded.
"There's a lot of programs out here, but at the same time, a lot of the time these kids have nothing to do. They're getting the worst books — old everything — so maybe the money will help out. It's possible that everything could be updated if we all pool together," said city resident Carse Lucas.
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.
Education scholars and advocates will be watching closely.
"Just throwing a lot of money at a problem doesn't necessarily solve anything, and I think past history demonstrates this," said Joseph DePeirro, dean of education at Seton Hall University.
Bradford, of the Newark-based education reform group, said: "If you are enormously successful, then you really have outlined a model of how you can use private philanthropy to break the status quo. And if you fail, you've given everybody a billion reasons never to try again."
Mulvihill reported from Trenton. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Beth DeFalco in Trenton and Donna Blankinship in Seattle and Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay in New York.