The secret e-mails about Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark schools

A detail that got buried on the day that Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) announced he would not challenge Gov. Chris Christie (R) next year was the news that a judge had ordered the release of secret e-mails involving the Booker administration’s dealings involving Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to city schools. City officials complied late on Christmas Eve by sending dozens of the e-mails to the Star-Ledger, apparently hoping the news would be buried by Santa. 

A refresher: Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools in 2010 after striking up a friendship with Booker. The two men went on the Oprah Winfrey show, along with Christie, to announce the donation and Christie’s decision to give to Booker some control of the school system, which has been run by the state for years. Zuckerberg’s donation — which called for matching gifts — came at the very same time as the release of the film “The Social Network,” the story of his founding of Facebook that portrays him in a negative light. (Coincidental timing?)

It is worth noting that city officials spent some time denying the e-mails existed, but the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey pursued the issue in court. Lo and behold, there were actually dozens of e-mails between the Zuckerberg camp (including Zuckerberg himself) and the Booker camp (including Booker himself).

So what do the heavily-redacted e-mails tell us? They reveal a determined effort by state education officials to persuade big private donors to provide the cash for them to remake public schools in the way they want to. It tells us more about the continuing privatization of American public education.

From the Star-Ledger:

Among the behind-the-scenes details never disclosed, the emails showed the Newark philanthropist Ray Chambers wanted to arrange a million-dollar donation, but a top aide to Mayor Cory Booker dismissed it as too small.

 

Indeed, the heavily redacted emails provide a window into how Booker’s aides and others courted wealthy donors days before Zuckerberg pledged the historic gift intended to revamp the troubled school district in front of a national audience on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

 

 

The people writing the e-mails (including Zuckerberg) obviously didn’t think they would ever be made public because they make no effort to hide the fact that they were trying to brand the Zuckerberg gift in the best light. They reveal that Zuckerberg was self-conscious about how the $100 million donation — which required matching donations — looked to the public and wanted a mechanism by which regular people could contribute small amounts.

From the Star Ledger:

… Sarah Ross — a close adviser to Booker and a co-founder with him of a social media venture — described a “community donation mechanism” of small, individual donations as “super important to Mark and Facebook.”

“They believe it’s bad positioning for Mark if only higher end donors are able to contribute to the matching funds in large chunks,” Ross wrote on Sept. 18, 2010, even though that’s exactly what happened. In another message, she noted: “Consumer donations is a hot button for them right now.”

 

Some $54 million in matching funds has been pledged by big private donors. There was even a discussion about how to get Oprah Winfrey to contribute.

In a Sept. 14, 2010, e-mail, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote to Bari Mattes, Booker’s longtime fundraiser, and said: “AMAZING if Oprah would donate. Will she?” Mattes suggested that Oprah friend Gayle King may have been part of talks about whether Oprah would donate.

“On Oprah, ask has been made with no response either way — so this means no or that, as Gayle King said, she loves a surprise — if no surprise, she will come off the list I fear,” she wrote.

 

 

 

One thing that the e-mails revealed is where the money was not going to go.  “MZ’s money is not going in to classrooms,” Booker aide Sharon Macklin wrote in a Sept. 19, 2010 e-mail.

Sandberg sent an e-mail to Booker days before the Oprah appearance asking about plans to get Newark residents — traditionally skeptical of outside control — to get on board with the donation and the changes that would be made with the money. An e-mail response from Booker said:  “This is one of our biggest concerns right now as we must be ahead of the game on community organizing by next week.”

Where has the money gone? So far less than $20 million has been given out in grants by the foundation, according to this story. Much of it has gone to consultants.

You can read all of the e-mails for yourself here.

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · January 6, 2013