The charitable-industrial complex

When Jeff Bezos announced that he is donating $2 billion to create a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools, he was praised for not following in the footsteps of other titans who have chosen to financially support top-down charter schools (“How to Realize Preschool Dreams,” The New York Times, Sep. 21).

That’s because recent research conducted at the University of Virginia found that children from low-income families in public Montessori programs were more likely to catch up to their advantaged peers than those who attended programs elsewhere.

But the study did not specify what those other programs were.  That’s an important omission because it leaves unanswered if the other programs were charter schools or traditional public schools.  For example, how did children in Montessori schools compare with children in Success Academy?  How did they compare with children in public schools in affluent suburban areas?

Montessori schools may be a godsend for some children but a disaster for others.  So much depends on what parents believe their own children need.  The Montessori model emphasizes child-directed learning in multiage classrooms.  It individualizes instruction. I vividly remember the media hoopla given to Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960s.  It appealed to parents who saw traditional British and American schools as rigid, joyless places.

I’m glad that Bezos is going to invest in a Montessori network.  His funding will give parents even more options than they have now.

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2 Replies to “The charitable-industrial complex”

  1. Mixed reaction to Bezos’ charitable funding of Montessori preschools. When billionaires donate $ to support widely-accepted good works — i.e., free clinics in poor neighborhoods, free computers for poor families, scholarships at expensive private colleges — then that’s great. But, when billionaires donate $ to support what might or might not be good public policy, that gives the billionaires way more influence on public policy than they should have. Gates was apparently a computer genius and a business genius + those skills made him incredibly rich. But having those skills and having all that $ did not make him any more likely to know how to improve K-12 public schools than the typical school superintendent — all things considered, Gates was probably less likely to know how to improve K-12 public schools than the typical school superintendent or even the typical school principal. Yet, Gates’ funding of policies that Gates thought would work had a tremendous impact on the national school-reform debate.

    If Idea A gets funded by a billionaire but Idea B does not get funded by a billionaire, society will learn a lot about Idea A and little/nothing about Idea B + even if Idea A does not work out very well in practice, there will be tremendous inertia of motion supporting the continuation of Idea A or some variation of Idea A — all because one very rich guy thought Idea A was a good idea.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: When money is given to schools, there are almost always strings attached. Bezos’s plan lacks details. The fact that parents will have another choice is good, but it remains to be seen if Bezos will keep his hands off.

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