- Associated Press - Saturday, September 25, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey has already thrown enough money at its largest school district to make it among the nation’s best-funded, yet it remains in the pits. Can a $100 million gift from the founder of Facebook really turn it around?

The money hasn’t even arrived, but it’s already creating a buzz in Newark, where three out of five third-graders can’t read and write at their grade level. Barely half the students who begin high school manage to graduate, and most of them do so without passing the state’s standard graduation exam.

“This money makes us feel good about ourselves, that we’re being noticed,” said 15-year-old Estephany Balbuena, a student at Newark’s Arts High School. “There’s a bad reputation of Newark, but it’s not true. Some of us are successful.”

The three players seeking to turn the windfall into a renaissance _ a 26-year-old Internet wunderkind, a Democratic mayor described by Oprah Winfrey as a “rock star” and a Republican governor drawing criticism and acclaim for his budget-slashing ways _ announced their plans Friday on Winfrey’s talk show.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he would donate $100 million worth of Facebook stock over the next five years through his new Startup: Education foundation. Gov. Chris Christie said he would give Mayor Cory Booker a major role in overseeing any major changes in the district, which the state took over in 1995 because of persistently low test scores and wasteful spending.

Booker pledged to raise an additional $150 million for the effort.

“What’s the alternative? Is it to continue what we’re doing now, with nearly a 50 percent dropout rate?” Christie said. “I’m much more willing to take risks and take chances when it comes to this.”

Zuckerberg paid a visit to Newark on Saturday, spending time with Booker and holding a press conference with the mayor and the governor at a downtown hotel. The three were short on specifics, saying that a key first step of the process would be getting community input on changes that need to be made.

Recounting how his grandmother had been a teacher and his parents had worked hard to give himself and his three sisters a good education, Zuckerberg said he hoped to do the same, not just for thousands of Newark students, but to help create a new model for successful public education that could be replicated nationwide. He dismissed questions about the timing of his donation, which coincides with the release of a movie about Facebook that portrays him in a less than flattering light.

“This (donation) is something that’s going to play out for years,” he said.

New Jersey’s Supreme Court has found in rulings over the past two decades that urban schools were underfunded and ordered the government to fund the most impoverished districts as well as its most affluent suburban schools. The court has also pushed the state to spend billions to upgrade school buildings in cities and provide free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

While some areas have seen gains, most of those schools still fall far short on measures such as standardized tests and graduation rates.

Money alone doesn’t seem to be the answer, but money is what wealthy funders can offer.

Through his foundation, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates _ like Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout _ awarded $290 million in education grants in November 2009, including $100 million to the school system that includes Tampa, Fla., and $90 million for the Memphis, Tenn., district. The foundation has also given $150 million to the New York City schools over the past eight years.

Most of the funding in New York has gone toward the creation of smaller schools that aim to boost graduation rates for the most academically challenged students; several teachers also participate in a foundation-led training program. One recent study of Gates’ efforts found that graduation rates in those schools had improved.

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