Billionaires Early Childhood Education

Mira Debs: How Jeff Bezos Should Spend His $2 Billion in Philanthropy

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Mira Debs, Executive Director of the Yale Education Studies Program, thinks Jeff Bezos should use his riches to help existing, top-quality Montessori programs instead of starting his own schools. He got off to a bad start by saying that “the child is the customer.” Ugh! Children are children, not customers!

She writes:

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, surprised the education world when he announced this month that he was donating $2 billion to support homeless families and create a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools.

It’s a compelling demonstration of the power of quality early childhood education that Mr. Bezos may have been inspired by a Montessori program he attended for a year and a half in the 1960s.

At face value, the donation is a much needed investment in early childhood education that could potentially help fill the child-care gap for many low-income families. In his announcement, Mr. Bezos highlighted his desire to find and spread the “good in the world.” But his plan to create new organizations, however worthy, would duplicate the efforts of grass-roots programs in need of a serious cash infusion.

Mr. Bezos should be congratulated for moving beyond the small circle of urban charter schools favored by other philanthropists. Many of these charter schools have been criticized for their rigid discipline. In contrast, Montessori classrooms focus on developing children’s independence and self-control, delivering academic results along the way. Recent research by Angelene Lillard of the University of Virginia and colleagues found that children from lower-income families who won a lottery spot in a public Montessori program were more likely to catch up to their wealthier peers than children who did not get a spot and attended programs elsewhere.

Mr. Bezos could follow in the footsteps of Roslyn Williams, a Montessori educator who founded the Central Harlem Association of Montessori Parents in 1967 to create integrated Montessori preschools in New York. Ms. Williams argued that Montessori education should go from being the “the rich child’s right” to “the poor child’s opportunity.”

Yet Mr. Bezos’s aim of creating his own network to run these preschools puts him in danger of falling into the trap of the “charitable-industrial complex,” following tech colleagues like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who have poured large sums of money into top-down educational strategies: saving Newark’s schools and improving teaching, gifts that have been shown to have a limited impact.

In this case, it’s not that families from underserved communities don’t want Montessori preschools, it’s that they have been creating them for a long time. Over the last four years, I’ve been doing research on public Montessori schools, and I helped start a public Montessori school in New Haven and a grass-roots network of Montessori educators. I learned that even though Montessori has a reputation for being a private, elite form of schooling, there is a long history of educators who have worked to make Montessori accessible to children from low-income backgrounds.

In Washington, Detroit, Dallas and other cities, there is a growing momentum to expand public Montessori programs. Today, 511 public Montessori programs have approximately 125,000 children ages 3 to 18 around the country, more than half of them students of color.

Instead of creating his own network, Mr. Bezos should consider funding schools that are already doing the work he admires. Consider the 50 public Montessori programs in Puerto Rico created by Ana María García Blanco beginning in 1990, programs that are now at risk of closing because of school reorganization efforts after Hurricane Maria. Public Montessori programs could use a fund to train teachers, buy materials and build buildings. Groups like Embracing Equity, City Garden Montessori and the Indigenous Montessori Institute are working to develop anti-bias, anti-racist curriculums and diversify the pool of Montessori teachers.

Rather than considering the children of these future schools his “customers,” albeit tuition-free customers, Mr. Bezos could orient himself toward viewing the underserved as his collaborators. Families have been organizing to create Montessori and other preschools for their children for a long time. A truly revolutionary philanthropic fund would not create a separate network, but seek out the schools, the community centers, the storefront start-ups and the other dreams in waiting.

Mira Debs (@mira_debs) is the executive director of the Yale Education Studies program, a lecturer in sociology and the author of the forthcoming book, “Diverse Families, Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in an Era of School Choice.”

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