With $100 million, Newark schools aiming high

NEWARK, N.J. —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."

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.