On Sept. 24, 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg joined then Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie to announce on the Oprah Winfrey show that he was donating $100 million to help fix schools in Newark.
At the time, the city’s schools were run by the state and the district’s high-school graduation rate was 54% and the vast majority of those who made it to college required remedial education. Fewer than 30% of students in the elementary and middle school grades were reading at grade level in a third of the schools.
Booker enlisted the help of Christie and convinced Zuckerberg to part with his money with the idea of creating a plan not only to fix schools in Newark, but to create a national model for education reform.
The donation was made with the understanding that it would be matched by another $100 million to be raised by Booker. The Foundation for Newark’s Future was created to dole out the money over a five-year period.
But the well-intentioned gift quickly caused controversy. In 2011, confidential memo was leaked to the press that called for the closure or consolidation of 11 low-performing district schools, and to make way for charter schools and five themed public high schools that would be funded by the Foundation for Newark’s Future.
South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, who was also the principal of Central High School at the time, became one of the most vocal opponents of the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg education reform plans. During the 2014 mayoral campaign, he used the issue effectively during the campaign, defeating Shavar Jeffries, who had the support of education reformers.
In 2018, Baraka criticized the Zuckerberg donation at a Wall Street Journal Conference, saying it "didn't go to the city, and it didn't go to the school system either. It went to a foundation that made decisions about what the money should be spent on. You can't just cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say, 'This is going to fix everything.' You have to engage with communities that already exist ... To parachute folks in, it becomes problematic."
“The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools,” by former Washington Post Reporter Dale Rusakoff was released in 2015. The book details the donation and its aftermath.
While experts will debate the value of Zuckerberg's donation, education reform advocates noted that in the decade since the donation was announced on Oprah, education has vastly improved for children in Newark.
Since 2010, charter schools have more than doubled their enrollment in Newark. Charter schools now serve nearly 4 in 10 students in the city. A 2015 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University ranked Newark's charter sector as number two in America, second only to Boston’s.
Charter schools have helped to raise Newark’s overall test scores. A recent report by the New Jersey Children's Foundation found that the citywide average of math and reading test scores across all district and charter school students showed improvement again this year with the city’s charter school sector continuing to stand out.
From the Series: Top Newark Stories of the Decade