Can Mark Zuckerburg Give Away Money in a Helpful Way?

Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced they are giving away $120 million to the San Francisco school system. According to this means that the billionaire couple “gave parents there a reason to applaud their wealthy neighbors.”

I have no personal experience in the issue, but it looks to me like nothing is more tricky than giving away an immense amount of money. I hope Zuckerburg and Chan are up to the task or have trusted stewards to help them.

My first worry is that, according to the San Jose Mercury News, Zuckerburg is motivated by low test scores in some schools that serve “low income and minority communities.” Is more money really going to make a huge difference? Yes it is true that middle- and upper- class neighborhoods, thanks to the tax base, have nicer and better equipped schools. But we should also consider that they have nicer homes and quieter neighborhoods with less crime. Is school performance dependent on teachers more than home life and residential environment? Are educators going to suddenly get better results with the influx of money?

My second worry is about what happens when the money runs out. Zuckerberg and Chan haven’t promised to make the $120-million/five-year plan renewable. So what can they do with that money? They can’t pay teachers more unless they expect to cut their pay when the money runs out. They can’t hire new teachers unless they are ready to fire them in five years. Any improvement in equipment and buildings have to be ones that they can afford to maintain.

More worrisome to me is the plan to create whole new schools:

Another portion of the $120 million will be earmarked for “working with partners to start new district and charter schools that give people more high quality choices for their education,” Zuckerberg said. While he didn’t provide details, school reform groups backed by local business leaders have recently campaigned to create more charter schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

So what happens to these charter schools at the end of five years? It sounds like Zuckerberg has found a way to successfully lobby for what these “local business leaders” have been campaigning for. They wanted the school system to start new charter schools with public money. It will be much easier to get the people to go along with this by presenting an initial deal and then leaving the public in the lurch. The decision to not raise taxes, increase public debt, and spend money on charter schools is much easier than deciding to close them down.

Also, much of the money, according to the story, seems to be aimed at increasing “connectivity” in schools. I have to ask: Isn’t Zuckerburg’s business model dependent on increasing internet use in the next generation? Is this all charity or is there marketing involved?

Zuckerburg has participated in this kind of deal before and the results are not stellar.

Funds from the new pledge will be distributed by Startup:Education, an organization run by former educator and management consultant Jen Holleran. Zuckerberg and Chan created the group to oversee the 2010 donation to schools in Newark, after Zuckerberg was solicited to help fund reforms backed by then-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The Newark gift has proven controversial: The New Yorker magazine reported in a lengthy article this month that a big chunk of the funds ended up going to pricey consultants, while reform efforts bogged down in factional politics, without producing much improvement in student performance so far.

In his newspaper essay, however, Zuckerberg cited some initial milestones and added, “It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.”

Does that sound like someone who fears his money was wasted? Either Zuckerberg is really confident that Newark is going to prove successful, or there were other benefits to him for using that money in the way he did that don’t include better-performing students.

People can criticize the one percent for a lot of reasons. But I usually feel better about them when they keep their money rather than when they give it away. I can’t escape the suspicion that their gifts are really purchases.