The recipient of his $100 million donation - thought to be the biggest of his young life - is the Newark public schools, a long-struggling district that could use the money to become a laboratory for reforms.
The donation is being announced Friday on Oprah Winfrey's TV show in an arrangement that brings together the young Internet tycoon, Newark's celebrated Democratic mayor and a governor who has quickly become a star of the Republican party.
The unusual coalition is more evidence of the growing cache of the cause of remaking urban public schools, an issue that has long confounded educators and advocates.
"What you're seeing is for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980," said Derrell Bradford, the executive director of the Newark-based education reform group Excellent Education for Everyone. "Newark public schools are like the new Live Aid."
Zuckerberg is not the first person to get rich on technology and then donate some of his wealth to urban schools.
Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in education grants, along with $45 million for research into effective teaching. The grants included $100 million to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., and $90 million to Memphis City Schools. The Gates Foundation also has given than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years, primarily for a project to transform its high schools into small schools.
An official familiar with the Newark plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the parties have been told not to usurp the announcement on Winfrey's show. The donation was first reported by The Star-Ledger of Newark.
The state Education Department, Facebook and the Newark mayor's office have been mum on the donation, but that hasn't stopped Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker from hinting about it on their Twitter accounts.
Booker tweeted: "Looking forward to Oprah on Friday! Please tune in to learn more about what's going on in Newark." Christie replied: "See you in Chicago," then added: "Great things to come for education in Newark."
The deal also sets the stage for Christie's announcement next week on his plans to reform the state's schools.
Some suggested that altruism was not the only thing driving the gift.
The announcement comes a week before the film "The Social Network" opens widely. The movie, whose tagline is "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies," portrays Zuckerberg as taking the idea for Facebook from other Harvard students. It is to debut at the New York Film Festival on Friday.
"I hate to be cynical and there are few districts in the nation that couldn't use an infusion of cash more than Newark," wrote blogger Christopher Dawson on ZDNet. "However, the timing of the announcement, coinciding with a high-profile return of district control from the state of New Jersey to the municipality of Newark, on Oprah no less, feels a little too staged."
Forbes.com on Thursday was asking readers: "Was the gift heartfelt or cunning PR?"
Zuckerberg is worth $6.9 billion, good enough to make him the 35th wealthiest American, according to Forbes magazine rankings out this week. His massive donation establishes him as a major player in philanthropy, placing him alongside others made wealthy by technology innovations, including Microsoft Corp. co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Details have not been disclosed on how the money may be spent in Newark, where the school district budget this year is $940 million, but it will likely give Booker some control over his city's school district.
The schools have been state-run since 1995 but consistently have some of the state's lowest scores on standardized tests and worst graduation rates. The problems have continued to mount despite major infusions of funds from the state government, which has been under court order to improve schools in Newark and other impoverished New Jersey cities.
According to the official with knowledge of the plans, Christie won't give up state control of Newark schools as part of the deal, but will authorize Booker to implement the education plan. Christie will still have ultimate control and can veto any moves.
Christie, like Booker, is an advocate of more publicly funded charter schools, using public money to send children to private schools and paying teachers partly based on how well students perform. The ideas from both often make teachers unions bristle, though union officials in Newark declined to comment.
For Christie, the deal may be a way to recover from the biggest misstep of his administration so far: Last month, the state missed out on a $400 million federal education grant because of a simple error on its application. Former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler was fired in the aftermath.
Education scholars and advocates will be watching closely.
Newark and other impoverished New Jersey districts have received infusions of state funding over the last two decades, but they've still lagged far behind schools in the suburbs. Advocates are hoping the effort brings reform, not just money.
"Just throwing a lot of money at a problem doesn't necessarily solve anything, and I think past history demonstrates this," said Joseph DePeirro, dean of education at Seton Hall University.
Bradford, of the Newark-based education reform group, said: "If you are enormously successful, then you really have outlined a model of how you can use private philanthropy to break the status quo. And if you fail, you've given everybody a billion reasons never to try again."
Mulvihill reported from Trenton. Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco in Trenton contributed to this report.