Four Takeaways from the New Zuckerberg and Chan Gift for Education

Despite underwhelming results so far in Newark, N.J., Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are taking another shot at using their fortune to improve troubled public schools. Only this time, they're keeping their dollars a little closer to home.

The Facebook CEO and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced in a San Jose Mercury News op-ed piece that they will pledge $120 million to troubled schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. They hope to use the funds to support the development of new district schools and charter campuses, support teacher training and student development, and foster innovation.

Schools in East Palo Alto will be among the first recipients of funding from this new gift. More than 90 percent of East Palo Alto students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, and less than half have shown proficiency in state assessments of reading and math skills. 

So what does this commitment tell us about the philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan? A few things:

1. They're in Ed Giving for the Long Haul 

We've described Zuckerberg's gift to Newark Public Schools in 2010 as "Mark Zuckerberg's Vietnam." It was a big mess, and four years and $100 million later, the results have been modest at best. Graduation rates increased about 10 percent—that's $10 million per percentage point, if you're keeping score—but Newark schools remain troubled. Recently, a group of students staged a sit-in, demanding the current superintendent resign.

You'd think that experience would have been enough to scare Zuck away from ed issues, a famous sinkhole for misspent philanthropic dollars. (See: Annenberg, Gates, etc.) We speculated recently that the couple would gravitate toward healthcare, Priscilla's area of expertise, making it easier to navigate.

But no, the couple is doubling down on education, with a commitment that extends five years into the future. They've also been supporting a few other ed initiatives, like Code.org, EducationSuperHighway (which seeks to bring high-speed Internet to K-12 classrooms), and Panorama Education, which uses surveys to improve schools. 

As for Newark, Zuckerberg and Chan defended that gift in their op-ed, after taking some pretty heavy fire from the New Yorker recently, saying not only has there been progress, but, more importantly, that they "have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort."

So Newark was no one-off gift, receding in the rearview mirror. Education appears personal for these two; Last year, Zuckerberg taught an after-school program on entrepreneurship at a public middle school in the Belle Haven, a mostly Latino and black part of Menlo Park, so he's clearly engaged.

2. They're Building Up an Ed Giving Operation

When Zuckerberg made the Newark commitment, he created something called Startup:Education, a supporting organization of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. While this outfit seemed, at the time, to be created specifically to move the Newark money, it's now clear that it's much more than that.

Startup:Education has a website that says its (broad) mission is "improving the quality of public education in this country by investing in great classroom experiences to ensure that every child has access to the skills and opportunities they need to reach their full potential." This entity has a small staff, including an executive director, Jen Holleran, and two other people. It wouldn't be surprising to soon see an expanding staff and grantmaking portfolio for Startup:Education, although the website says that no unsolicited proposals are accepted.  

3. Their Approach to Education is Broad

While the Newark gift has been closely associated with an ed philanthropy that seeks to spread charter schools and bust teacher unions, Zuckerberg and Chan are not one-note education funders in the mold of the Walton Family Foundation. They understand that the challenges facing schools are complicated, and don't just boil down to a lack of competition or self-interested unions. And they see a lack of money as one crucial obstacle for many low-income school districts, an idea that's heretical among conservative ed reformers. 

Writing about the Silicon Valley schools in their op-ed, the couple say,

There are many heroic educators doing their best to serve students here. But the challenges are much greater than the resources they receive. Schools can't try new teaching models that might help their students. They're forced to cut back on classes and extracurricular programs. They don't have access to computers and connectivity in the classroom.

So, yes, while some of the new funds will go to bankroll charter schools in Silicon Valley, the first round of cash out of the door "will go towards initiatives that provide computers and connectivity in schools, as well as teacher training and parent outreach to make these a really valuable addition to the learning experience. Funds will also support leadership opportunities for students, more effective transitions for students moving from middle school to high school, and leadership training for principals." Pretty meat-and-potatoes stuff. And Zuckerberg and Chan acknowledged that their pledge is only a fraction of what the area schools actually need.

The other commitments the couple has made through Startup:Education also suggest they are thinking widely about improving education, and see access to technology as especially important. 

4. They're Hearing the Critique about Techies and Inequality in the Bay Area

It's no surprise that Zuckerberg and Chan are sticking close to home, given the push by a number of tech leaders to respond to rising complaints about inequality in the Bay Area. The tech industry has come under strong criticism for helping foster such inequality and price out ordinary people. Marc Benioff has notably led an effort to rally tech companies behind a new anti-poverty initiative, as we've discussed here

But various other efforts are also underway, and education is a big focus. The Bay Area is well known as a hub of high-tech innovation and is the home of many leading technology firms, including Apple, LinkedIn, Oracle, and Facebook. Yet amid this technological innovation and historic wealth creation, all is not well in K-12 education, as the area is home to several deeply troubled school systems.  

Keep in mind that the other big Zuckerberg/Chan gift this year was to improve healthcare services for low-income people in the area.