It seems the folks who made "grumpy cat" status updates and House of Cards binge-watching possible care more about your children than your elected officials do. That’s the takeaway from two current, interrelated, and antithetical trends. On the one hand, the federal government has gleefully slashed the nation’s budget for public education at rates that far exceed general spending cuts. On the other hand, the super-rich are stepping into the lurch, donating hundreds of millions (even billions) of dollars to the cause.
In early January, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings established a $100 million philanthropic fund dedicated to improving the educational plight of disadvantaged students. The chief executive of the streaming media pioneer kicked off his efforts by dedicating $1.5 million to the United Negro College Fund and the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley.
Hastings joined Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who together announced this past December that they would be channeling 99% of their company shares into a fund that would improve public health, education, and community development. Their shares are collectively valued at roughly $45 billion dollars, an amount which comes pretty close to equaling half of the nation’s total federal budget for education.
Of course, it is tempting to find the catch in all of this. What do these tech sultans have to gain? Well, critics do have their fair share of concerns and we’ll get to those.
But it’s even more tempting to point out the hideous failure of our federal government to provide for our children, ensure our future, or even feign interest in our flagging educational standards.
So let’s do that first.
“F” is for Funding
As long as we’re assigning letter grades to stuff, the federal government gets a big fat “F” for funding. Fairly compelling evidence abounds to suggest that the federal government doesn’t much care to fund your child’s education. If you’re curious about where exactly your tax dollars are hardest at work, nationalpriorities.org says that about 33% goes toward Social Security, Unemployment & Labor. Medicare and other Health costs amount to roughly 27%. The military enjoys just a shade under 16% of all federal spending.
Education falls pretty low on the totem at 2.67% of the nation’s total spending budget. That’s about the equivalent of your household’s annual expenditure on decorative throw pillows and Hallmark cards.
And that number is the product of five years of steady slashing. Between 2011 and 2015, Congress has seen fit to shrink the federal budget for education by nearly 20%. This exceeds the rate of federal spending cuts elsewhere by a rate of five to one. While it’s hard to wrap the brain around this pattern, we can only deduce that the government thinks things are going really well in education.
Privately Funded Public Education
Some of America’s wealthiest entrepreneurs see things quite differently. Zuckerberg and Chan, for their part, have already made a practice of donating enormous sums to educational causes.
In just the last five years, Zuckerberg and Chan have pledged $7.5 million toward college scholarships for undocumented immigrants, $120 million to schools in low-income Bay Area communities, and $100 million to New Jersey schools in Newark’s larger metropolitan region. Last year, the couple also announced a $20 million donation to Education Super Highway, a nonprofit organization that helps public schools pay for high-speed Internet.
These donations underscore the Facebook family’s dedication to a cause which seems a great deal less important to the federal government. Zuckerberg and Chan have stated their commitment to confronting poverty and its irreversible developmental impact on America’s youth. They have expressed particular interest in helping to create more individualized opportunities for students in typically underserved contexts.
The couple has been criticized in the past for diving into the education pool with little experience. In particular, observers roundly lambasted their venture in Newark for its failure to involve community leaders in key decisions. Many have argued that the public schools which were the recipients of the Zuckerberg-Chan donation effectively squandered a fortune without delivering on the program’s stated goals. Though Zuckerberg acknowledges that more steps should have been taken to consult and involve members of the surrounding communities, he also points out that Newark’s graduation rate increased by 13% across the life of the donation.
In the charitable ventures that have followed, Zuckerberg and Chan have been far more conscientious about community needs and have taken steps to ensure that local leaders are closely involved in their endeavors.
This, of course, has not shielded the couple from criticism. Indeed, their newly created fund has been established as a Limited Liability Corporation, rather than as a traditional non-profit foundation. The move has earned some scrutiny, though Zuckerberg attests that the classification merely allows the organization more freedom and flexibility in effecting policy change.
Zuckerberg has said that his overarching motives for donating extraordinary sums of private money to educational causes are to unlock human potential and promote equality.
Over at Netflix, Reed Hastings is approaching education with a similar intent. Hastings’ interest in education has been well-established given his background. Before standing atop the digital media empire, Hastings served as president of the California State Board of Education. From this post, he earned a reputation as a staunch supporter of the state’s charter school system.
Though this predilection has earned him scrutiny from public education advocates, he also used that post to push for greater accountability for charter schools. Much of his work at the time emphasized the need to curtail inappropriate spending by charter schools.
While some critics fear that Hastings’ newly created fund would only further elevate charter schools at the expense of traditional public education, his initial contributions are earmarked for improving college access for otherwise disadvantaged demographics.
Hold Your Fire
As critics stand back and scan for ulterior motives, the long and short of it is that these motives don’t matter. Schools are starving for resources and policy initiatives at the federal level—whether operating under the name No Child Left Behind or Common Core—seem perversely intent on magnifying rather than confronting inequality.
Educational funding cuts are particularly popular on Capitol Hill, where five years of gutting have had a tangible impact on our schools. Bipartisan advocacy group First Focus reported in its mid-2015 analysis of federal budgetary spending, that public school districts have been forced to lay off teachers and support staff, increase class sizes, and eliminate tutoring, athletics, and after school programs in order to sustain these cuts.
While President Obama’s 2016 budget offers slight funding increases to some of the most aggressively slashed or defunded programs, House and Senate appropriations bills have countered with continued cuts. No matter how you slice it, federal lawmakers have shown their hostility toward our schools, our teachers, and our students.
It is into this particularly inhospitable void that wealthy donors like Zuckerberg-Chan and Hastings have stepped. It is not just the impressive sums that distinguish these donors from federal lawmakers. Zuckerberg-Chan and Hastings are also differentiated by their recognition that circumstances like poverty and familial instability play a direct role in educational outcomes. This is a fact that federal lawmakers seem dedicated to overlooking.
Whatever scrutiny is visited upon these donations, it should be invested in constructive critique, as opposed to cynical opposition. Save the latter for your elected officials.