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Why Billionaires' Big Donations Often Fail to Change Much

Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have given millions to overhaul public education. But their cash has proven to be anything but free money or a remedy to systemic problems.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
(AP/Jeff Chiu)
Six years ago, school officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., celebrated the news that they had won a seven-year, $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The money would go toward improving teacher quality through evaluations and performance bonuses. “We are in a position to create a model for the nation,” MaryEllen Elia, the county’s superintendent of public schools, said at the time.

This past October, however, the district announced it would do away with its expensive teacher evaluation system, which had led to high cost overruns and produced decidedly mixed results. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that $23 million went to consultants, and much of the money that did go to teachers went to suburban classrooms, not high-need city schools. Student performance wasn’t a resounding success either: The county’s high school graduation rates were still lower than in other large school districts in the state. Meanwhile, the district’s budget problems -- it had to raise its own $100 million to match the Gates grant -- have created a rift in the historically cordial relationship between the school district and its teacher union. (Elia was fired as superintendent early last year.)

Hillsborough County is not alone in experiencing the roller coaster that is philanthropic giving to public schools. A recent book by longtime Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, The Prize, details a similar breakdown in Newark, N.J., where Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to accept $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, again to overhaul public education. As in Tampa, the Newark grant has not achieved anything like the turnaround that school officials had hoped for.

Gates and Zuckerberg are among a fleet of philanthropists who have partnered with state and local government to achieve specific policy goals -- everything from reducing prisoner recidivism to improving literacy among young children to revitalizing blighted neighborhoods. But education initiatives tend to draw the most scrutiny. “It’s a more contentious policy,” says James Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Public education has a long tradition of being one of the purest forms of local government. “When you have private actors looking to shape it, there’s a big reaction against that.” 

Local jurisdictions usually cheer the arrival of this outside funding. But places like Hillsborough County and Newark serve as reminders that philanthropic cash isn’t free money: These projects can be both financially and politically expensive for government. And some say they fail to address the most entrenched problems surrounding education. That kind of criticism goes back more than a century. After the Civil War, George Peabody’s philanthropic fund sought to boost the Southern economy through better schooling. The fund offered matching donations that pressured local school districts to open public schools for black students, improve teacher training and establish standard student-teacher ratios. 

The Peabody Fund and other similar foundations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries eventually concluded that many of their reforms hadn’t addressed an important barrier to student achievement: segregation. Today, critics say education reform efforts to improve teacher quality miss a similar root cause: the student gap in wealth and economic opportunity. “The premise that teachers are the problem,” wrote John Romano, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, “ignores the reality that poverty is the most reliable indicator of a student’s performance.” 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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