Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Part 4

The series continues. The introduction is here. Part 1 is here, followed by Part 2, and Part 3, and today is Part 4. There is one part remaining, followed by a conclusion.

Now it’s Jeff Bezos’s turn to try and be the savior, but there are some differences in his approach from the ones we have discussed to this point.  In early September, months after soliciting advice and commentary via his public Twitter account, the Amazon founder announced that he would pledge at least $2 billion to create what he is calling the “Day One Fund,” which will center on pre-school education for low-income families. The money will also be used to help homeless families access permanent residences. Notably, Bezos has long faced criticism for his business practices leaving many of Amazon’s frontline workers eligible for public assistance, with Senator Bernie Sanders even proposing a bill designed to force corporations to better compensate their employees, which he called the “Stop BEZOS Act” (Vengattil & Dastin, 2018).  He was also singled out for his choice not to join Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” where many of the world’s wealthiest individuals promised to donate the majority of their amassed wealth to charity (Bhattaria & Davenport, 2018). Bezos clearly refuses to follow the crowd, even the rarefied billionaire philanthropist crowd, but in this case, that might actually be a good idea.

The Day One Fund will create new pre-schools in underserved areas, yet instead of building new networks of charter schools that inevitably draw resources away from district schools, this addresses a real need, as many districts do not guarantee educational services for children younger than kindergarten age, and by this point, many students are already significantly behind their peers. Among other studies, James Heckman et al. (2017) found that district investment in early-childhood programs had a strongly positive rate of return, and the value of expanding pre-K is one of the few topics in educational policy often agreed upon by people on the left and the right, even though many states have yet to prioritize such initiatives.  This early discrepancy was part of the justification for New York’s continually expanding Universal Pre-K program. I cite the research here to demonstrate that Bezos’s idea to expand pre-K is based on proven results. He may be donating this money to look better in the public or to avoid having more bills passed against his business practices in Congress, but unlike the prevailing theory in “accountability” movements that tying teacher pay and/or district financial support to test scores will lead to improved results his fund will begin with a direction that is based on what the research has shown to be true.

More importantly, though, is the fact that the donation will be split between the expansion of pre-K and the creation of affordable housing. With even progressive cities like New York suffering through a crisis in which more than 10% of its public school students lack permanent residences (Shapiro, 2018), any intervention that attempts to improve outcomes in education without addressing housing is almost doomed to failure. What will Bezos actually do to address homelessness? It’s not yet clear, since at this point it’s a press release, a speech, and some tweets to interpret. The money, if used carefully, might be enough to simply provide housing to a certain number of families in need, or to improve deplorable shelter conditions. I’m not sure how Bezos and his team came to the decision to focus on housing in conjunction with education when the other major education donors have largely stuck to the same playbook, and, again, at the moment, it’s all talk. Bezos claims that the communities will be driving the way the money is spent, but he also runs a company that barely pays its frontline workers a living wage. In fact, the book “Nomadland” follows several seasonal Amazon employees who themselves have no permanent address. “Some call them homeless,” Bruder (2017) wrote. “The new nomads reject that label. Equipped with both shelter and transportation, they’ve adopted a new word. They refer to themselves, quite simply, as ‘houseless’” (p. xiii). Critics could easily say that the best thing Bezos could do to combat homelessness would be to pay his employees enough that they didn’t have to create neologisms for their unsecured housing status.

Nevertheless, there are enough good ideas in Bezos’s plan that, whether or not they actually come to fruition, there is a road map there for future donors to follow. These are very smart and successful people, and their goal is to help students who need extra support, then there are ways to avoid the missteps of many education philanthropists and serve the members of these communities.