Zuckerberg’s philanthropy proves school solutions aren’t easy

Jun 2, 2014 by

Jill Tucker –

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants to make a difference. A big one.

So, this week, he pulled out his checkbook and, with his pediatrician wife, made a $120 million donation to Bay Area schools.

The donation, announced Thursday night in a Facebook post and an opinion page essay, drew gasps for its size and scope.

The couple, in their announcement, outlined two objectives.

“One part will be working with partners to start new district and charter schools that give people more high-quality choices for their education,” they wrote. “The other part is listening to the needs of local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students that others miss.”

The two-prong goal offers insight into Zuckerberg’s evolution as an education philanthropist, one who continues to staunchly support innovation through a market-system menu of schools, but also one who is learning from mistakes and who realizes he doesn’t have all the answers to public education’s problems.

A more cautious approach

The progression seems to mirror the shift from Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” motto to the more mature “Move fast with stable infra,” as in “infrastructure.”

In other words, he still wants to go big, but with a bit more caution.

It’s clear Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have the best of intentions.

“The world’s most innovative community shouldn’t also be a home for struggling public schools,” they wrote. “Helping improve the quality of public education in this country is something we both really care about.”

The first $5 million in funding will go toward computer and online access as well as technology training for parents and teachers in mid-Peninsula schools and in San Francisco. Future funds will help open new charter and district schools that the announcement says will offer innovative ways to address the needs of struggling students while also training new school leaders and supporting innovation in existing classrooms.

Exactly where and how that money would be spent remains to be seen.

More clear is a history of education reform littered with good intentions gone bad.

While the high-risk, high-reward mentality works in tech – there’s always more venture capital to fund the next big idea – public education doesn’t bounce back from failure quite so easily.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, poured millions of dollars into new small schools, specifically in Oakland, and then abandoned the effort, leaving the East Bay city grappling to this day with too many schools and not enough money to operate them.

Zuckerberg falls in with Gates in espousing a new model of giving in which “venture philanthropists” set the reform agenda and give the money to those who agree to it, said Kevin Kumashiro, University of San Francisco dean of education and an expert on education reform.

“They use words like ‘innovation,’ ‘creativity,’ ” he said. “What they are really talking about is expanding the way the system can operate like a market.”

Zuckerberg’s first big foray into education reform was in Newark, N.J., where he poured in $100 million to overhaul the school system, adding charter schools and revamping the teacher contract to offer retroactive pay and performance bonuses.

‘Hard to drive change’

The results have been mixed, with a lot of money spent on outside contractors and significant community backlash. Zuckerberg acknowledges that his efforts at education reform are a work in progress and he’s learning from the past.

Many education reformers see him as a much-needed risk taker.

“There’s good philanthropy and there’s bad philanthropy and there’s a lot in between,” said Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, which guides a network of nonprofits in improving education. “The bottom line of all of this is it’s hard to drive change in public education.”

Yes, there’s a risk in putting a lot of money in innovative reform, he said.

“I would argue there’s a greater risk to doing nothing,” Gray said. “If we don’t embrace a philosophy of innovation in public education, the only thing we guarantee is continued failure.”

Others were thrilled about the infusion of cash and were cautiously optimistic.

“California is home to innovative industries that have forever changed the world we live in, and we are hopeful that this donation will be the tipping point for real and meaningful change for our state’s educational system,” said Jovan Agee, director for StudentsFirst California, an offshoot of Michelle Rhee‘s national teacher quality nonprofit.

For now, how exactly Zuckerberg’s money will be spent is still hazy.

The first $5 million will go to schools in Redwood City, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and San Francisco.

The money, funneled through the Startup: Education fund, will fund technology – everything from wiring to computers as well as teacher and parent training.

Trying to improve schools

San Francisco will get $1 million, and its officials emphasized that the money would support the district’s efforts to improve schools rather than an imposed vision mandated by donors or outsiders. Funding for technology fits in with their vision as well as Zuckerberg’s.

“We deeply appreciate that Mark and Priscilla are listening to the needs of the community and supporting the strategies that have been laid out by veteran educators and community leaders,” Superintendent Richard Carranza said.

All other Bay Area districts could see some of the remaining $115 million.

But not everyone was necessarily eager to get it.

“We don’t need more charter schools. I don’t particularly want the Zuckerberg money if it’s for charter schools,” said Oakland school board member Jody London. “Educators know what they need. They’re the ones working in these schools day in and day out.”

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via Zuckerberg’s philanthropy proves school solutions aren’t easy – SFGate.

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