Friends in Need

Mark Zuckerberg joins the ranks of America's great philanthropists. How far will his gift go?

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Especially in this autumn of austerity, it's great to watch swashbuckling rebels fling gold into the air. Grinning on Oprah as he revealed a surprise gift—$100 million to turn around the benighted schools of Newark, N.J.—Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed surprised at what fun it was.

The skeptics had already weighed in on his possible motives. New York magazine called his gift "the p.r. move of the month," designed to deflect attention from the movie premiering the same day that portrays Zuckerberg as an awkward, unscrupulous hacker who stole the idea for Facebook from his Harvard schoolmates. Others saw an act of atonement for his landing as the second youngest billionaire on the Forbes 400. Or, as one blogger proposed, a plot to "cement the Facebook brand with the young people who made Zuckerberg a billionaire."

As though the motives even matter. America's first billionaire, Standard Oil titan John D. Rockefeller, was described as "a monster; merciless in his greed; pitiless in his cold inhuman passions"—and that was by his brother. But the robber barons were complex, competitive men who emerged from the Industrial Revolution with way more money than the church offering plate could hold. So they industrialized charity, tackling immense problems--hunger, disease, the root causes of poverty—in ways that saved enough lives to salvage their legacies.

Their most important legacy may have been their example: the expectation that, in America, wealth performs a marriage of duty and opportunity. Now that the Information Revolution has accelerated wealth creation along with everything else, there's a new generation—brash, creative and crazy rich—ready to spend more on the next challenge than on themselves. This would seem especially true of Zuckerberg, who has made about $559,361 every hour of every day for the past year but whose material needs don't appear to extend much past gray T-shirts and sneakers.

This is not the old money of the great foundations or the new money of the Wall Street raiders who yearned to see their names in gold letters on concert halls. This is fast money, which tends to flow outside and around established institutions to find smart solutions to the least glamorous problems. Bill Gates is going to save the world from malaria and diarrhea. And now Zuckerberg is going to fix education in Newark.

Safe to say, it will be harder than inventing Facebook. Newark's schools are so bad that 15 years ago the state took them over. More than half the third-graders can't read or write at grade level, and barely half graduate. Money is not the problem; Newark already spends $22,000 a year per student, more than twice the national average. The problem is legal, political and cultural, which is why Zuckerberg didn't even pretend to have a plan. He just decided that New Jersey's smart, combative Republican governor, Chris Christie, and Newark's charismatic Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, were worth underwriting in an unprecedented way. "Instead of building out a large foundation," he said, "I wanted to invest in people that I believe in."

And that's where the more depressing reaction comes in: not from those who are cynical about Zuckerberg's motives but from those who are threatened by them. The film that really applies here is not The Social Network but Waiting for "Superman," the blistering documentary about failing schools. Booker says that under their contracts, principals work 29 hours a week. The Wall Street Journal reported that in June, a young history teacher rated as "distinguished" was forced out of one school under the "last hired, first fired" protocol, while the five who remained included one rated as failing to "establish a culture of learning." And no sooner had Zuckerberg's gift been announced than the first threats of lawsuits arrived, from veterans of the education wars who say that policy should not be made on Oprah and that the rules make no provision for superheroes, even if they come in sneakers.

No one wants billionaires writing curriculums to suit their tastes or using their wealth to circumvent voters. But Newark is now a test for all involved. Zuckerberg has invited reformers to build something great. Opponents are standing by with sledgehammers. Parents, teachers and politicians will have to choose whose side they're on; in three years, when Christie's and Booker's terms are up, voters will decide if they like what they see. That's as it should be, since problems this big won't be solved without all parties' putting down their weapons and picking up their tools. It's hard to imagine, but $100 million is just the first of them.