The Meaning of Zuckerberg’s $100 Million

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September 23, 2010; Source: The Daily Beast

In her column for the Daily Beast, senior correspondent, Rebecca Dana, takes off from a point that we made in our Newswire last week about the philanthropic generosity of the Forbes 400 richest billionaires. One of the founders of Facebook, rapidly climbing the ranks of he nation’s richest people, announced a $100 million donation he intended to make to the public school system of Newark, N.J.

Dana contends that $100 million is now the threshold charitable donation level for the ultra-rich to make a splash. She quotes Patrick Rooney at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University who says that $100 million is a number which will make “the media . . . willing to pay attention.” Francie Ostrower from the University of Texas seems to agree, asking “Would people be writing about him if it were $50 million?” The Urban Institute’s Eugene Steuerle added, “You want it to be large enough so that people can’t dodge what you’re trying to achieve.”

What is Facebook’s Zuckerberg trying to achieve? A Forbes blogger noted that news of Zuckerberg’s donation was leaked so as to coincide with the announcement of this year’s Forbes 400. At 26 his is the largest donation to be made by someone so young. The donation might also take a little of the steam off of the backlash against Facebook regarding how it handles and protects personal information, though that hasn’t stopped a million people a day from signing up.

The $100 million isn’t exactly a straight gift to the public school system, but capitalizes a new foundation called “Start Up: Education.” The foundation will be headed by a well known advocate of school choice, Jennifer Holleran of New Leaders for New Schools. The announcement was made at a press conference in Newark, with Oprah Winfrey hosting the event for her show. The announcement also consummated a partnership between Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker to turn around Newark’s schools.

Start Up may provide grants to school districts other than Newark’s, but it is focusing on Newark for the moment. Christie and Booker are both advocates of school choice, Booker having been a high-profile player in Excellence in Education for Everyone (E3), a group strongly committed to school choice including not just charters, but vouchers. Booker immediately assuaged the fears of some by promising that Zuckerberg’s gift wouldn’t be used for private school vouchers.

Is Zuckerberg’s $100 million going to do something different than the $100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Tampa school system or the $90 million from Gates for Memphis’s schools, or is it really the philanthropic kicker to fulfill Oprah Winfrey’s dream of luring Michelle Rhee out of D.C., where she is likely to be fired anyhow (she called the election of a new mayor there a “disaster” for kids) to take over as superintendent of the Newark school system?

Zuckerberg’s donation means a lot of things to a lot of people. We’re interested in what Zuckerberg’s $100 million says to you?—Rick Cohen

  • KellyKleiman

    The real meaning of the Zuckerberg gift is that $100 million can buy the right to tell the governor of New Jersey to let the mayor of Newark run the city’s schools, despite the failure of all previous petitions to the governor for that precise outcome. Thus, it becomes another example of the way democracy is trumped by great wealth.