By Brandon Bailey
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife on Thursday pledged $120 million to help schools in low-income Bay Area communities in what amounts to their biggest publicly announced donation to a local cause.
"The world's most innovative community shouldn't also be a home for struggling public schools," Zuckerberg said, announcing the pledge in an essay written for this newspaper's opinion section. He cited the example of chronically low test scores in the Ravenswood school district, which serves low-income and minority communities near Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park.
"There are many heroic educators doing their best to serve students here," Zuckerberg wrote. "But the challenges are much greater than the resources they receive."
The announcement comes at a time when Silicon Valley companies and affluent tech workers have drawn fire from critics who accuse them of driving up real estate prices and giving little thought to lower-income communities of the Bay Area.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have made headlines with big charitable gifts before: He gave $100 million to help schools in Newark, N.J., and the couple later donated stock worth more than $1.5 billion to a fund administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation -- which made them the nation's biggest charitable donors in 2013. The fund at the community foundation is intended to finance a variety of projects over many years, including a multimillion-dollar grant for health research and $5 million provided earlier this year to an East Palo Alto medical clinic.
The latest gift, which also comes from that fund, will help "improve education for underserved communities" over the next five years, Zuckerberg said. Some of the $120 million will help start new public and charter schools in the Bay Area while the rest will pay for equipment, training and other programs at existing schools. The first $5 million will go to needy schools in the Ravenswood and Redwood City school districts and other "high-need" neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Zuckerberg, who turned 30 this month, is a Harvard drop-out who became one of the world's richest men. He's currently worth about $28 billion, thanks to his stake in the giant social networking company he co-founded in 2004. Chan is a children's doctor who once worked as a schoolteacher.
"Helping improve the quality of public education in this country is something we both really care about," wrote Zuckerberg, who in 2013 taught an after-school class in entrepreneurship for a Boys and Girls Club at Menlo Park's Belle Haven Community School.
Funds from the new pledge will be distributed by Startup:Education, an organization run by former educator and management consultant Jen Holleran. Zuckerberg and Chan created the group to oversee the 2010 donation to schools in Newark, after Zuckerberg was solicited to help fund reforms backed by then-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The Newark gift has proven controversial: The New Yorker magazine reported in a lengthy article this month that a big chunk of the funds ended up going to pricey consultants, while reform efforts bogged down in factional politics, without producing much improvement in student performance so far.
In his newspaper essay, however, Zuckerberg cited some initial milestones and added, "It's still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we're making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort."
Working through Startup:Education, Zuckerberg has also put money into such projects as Education Superhighway, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to provide Internet access to public schools, and Panorama Education, a for-profit Massachusetts start-up that makes surveys and other tools for schools to get feedback from their communities.
In the Bay Area, Zuckerberg said part of his gift will be used for "initiatives that provide computers and connectivity in schools, as well as teacher training and parent outreach." He said money would also go to leadership training for principals and to help students adjust to the transition from middle school to high school.
At the Redwood City school district, a spokeswoman said Zuckerberg's representatives have indicated they want to help "with closing the digital divide and helping parents become actively involved with their children's use of technology." She said specifics of the gift are still being discussed.
In a statement, Ravenswood schools Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said funds from Zuckerberg and Chan would help needy students in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park. "We are grateful for their support for everything we are doing to prepare our students for success in high school and college so that they, too, can launch careers in the increasingly competitive Silicon Valley workforce," she added.
Another portion of the $120 million will be earmarked for "working with partners to start new district and charter schools that give people more high quality choices for their education," Zuckerberg said. While he didn't provide details, school reform groups backed by local business leaders have recently campaigned to create more charter schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Charter schools are publicly funded but often operated by private groups, with more freedom to design programs and hire staff. A few local districts have also experimented with "small schools of choice," which operate with more autonomy under district oversight.
"We're excited for the opportunity to support so many amazing educators, leaders and entrepreneurs in the years ahead to create schools where students thrive," Zuckerberg wrote.
To date, he added, "the investments we've made are a drop in the bucket compared to the challenges schools face. But we've seen that targeted investments can be catalysts for much bigger changes in communities, and give vital support to leaders and organizations."
(c)2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)