Facebook founder’s $100 million for Newark schools lends support to union foe Gov. Christie

The buzz around Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the Newark public schools has focused on whether he is trying to offset bad publicity caused by a new feature-length film about him.

What has been overlooked is the fact that one of the world’s up and coming tech industry celebrity leaders has come out in support of education reforms being championed by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has unabashedly gone head to head with teacher unions.

It is a noteworthy development in an ongoing national debate over education. The head of what is arguably the world’s most dominant social media website – which has tremendous cultural cache and reach among young people in particular – has put his support behind a Republican politician who has said teacher unions are the most significant obstacle to true education reform.

Zuckerberg himself, and Facebook as a company, are not antagonistic toward unions like Christie is. The governor’s rhetoric and Zuckerberg’s at a joint press conference with Newark Mayor Corey Booker were markedly different on the issue, according to those present.

But while Zuckerberg had high praise for teachers in a blog post announcing his donation, he also said he wanted to work with leaders who would “challenge the status quo” and “cut through the politics and red tape.”

The highlight of Zuckerberg’s well-scripted donation rollout was a Sept. 24 appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with Christie and Booker, a rising Democratic star who has already crossed party lines this year to work with the Republican governor on property tax issues.

Zuckerberg, who was connected with Christie through Booker after meeting the mayor this summer, said explicitly that he chose to give to Newark because of the distinct approach to education reform being pioneered by the political odd couple.

“Newark is really just because I believe in these guys,” Zuckerberg said.

“Running a company, the main thing that I have to do is find people who are going to be really great leaders and invest in them, and that’s what we’re doing here,” said the self-described “awkward” 26-year old. “We’re setting up a $100 million challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Gov. Christie can have the flexibility that they need to implement new programs in Newark and really make a difference.”

A Facebook spokesman said that the $100 million “challenge grant” – which was donated by Zuckerberg himself to a new foundation he is launching – will be disbursed over the course of the next five years. Newark’s schools currently have an $800 million annual budget.

The exact mechanics of who will determine how the money will be spent have yet to be decided, several sources said. Neither has Facebook publicly stated what benchmarks will have to be met to release the full $100 million amount.

But the approach is clearly in the mold of the education reform movement that was embodied in Washington D.C.’s public schools under Mayor Adrian Fenty and his hand-picked chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who has become a major player in what is now a multi-billion dollar company, set up a meeting between Zuckerberg and Rhee during the process of deciding where to donate.