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Do big charitable donations to education always get an A+?

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg
Ben Margot/AP

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Wealthy philanthropists like Laurene Powell Jobs, Eli Broad and Mark Zuckerberg have made headlines for their charitable contributions to public education.

They make sizable donations with the hope of improving schools and, therefore, improving our future work force. Educational institutions benefit from these generous donations, but some wonder what kinds of complications could also arise?

For a deeper look into big money in public education, Take Two’s Alex Cohen spoke with Dale Russakoff, the author of “The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools.”


Your book,“The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools” looked at what happened when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million dollars to revitalizing schools in Newark, New Jersey. What was he trying to accomplish?

This was his very first philanthropic move. He was twenty six years old when he made the gift. His desire was to change the nature of public education. He felt that it wasn’t serving the poorest kids at all and that he felt the main thing that was needed was to have a higher quality teacher in a system at every level. He wanted to create a different system that would attract better teachers and reward them so that they would stay. He thought he could do it by taking on this one public school district and transforming it.

What was the result of Zuckerberg’s donation to the schools in Newark, New Jersey?

It was a very mixed picture. The school district has seen some improvement in just the last year or so but for the first five years, the student performance was going down not up. There was a tremendous amount of upheaval and change because so many kids were leaving for charters in part and also because they were closing district schools and moving children around and moving teachers around so that students would come back to school in the fall and they would have all different teachers and a different atmosphere. I think that churn and that change turned out to be very problematic.

The question was, were those dollars actually spent on the individual needs of the kids? Having better teachers definitely meets certain individual needs of the kids but changing a big system and how teachers are rewarded and recruited and so forth doesn’t ensure that every child is going to have a better teacher. It may create a better system but when you get to the level of the individual child, you’re not guaranteeing that you’re going to see real change in the support for that kid’s needs.

For a wealthy benefactor like Mark Zuckerberg, how is donating to education different than other kinds of contributions like medical research or helping the homeless?

I think that in education, the emergence of charter schools - and charter schools in Newark did get a big chunk of the Zuckerberg money - has very much attracted wealthy donors because they see charters as running on the same principles as business run because they’re private organizations. Most charter schools are not union and they have the flexibility to make the kinds of changes that public schools in large bureaucracies with union workers can’t make on a dime. I think also, when they give money to a charter school, with a relatively small amount of money for them, they create a school and there’s something for them to see for their investment whereas if they’re giving to an art museum or a hospital they’re perpetuating something but they’re not seeing something new and different and I think that’s very satisfying to donors. 

*Quotes edited for clarity. 

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