Earlier this month, Reed Hastings, CEO and founder of Netflix, announced he would donate $100 million dollars to set up a fund for educational initiatives, mainly the creation and maintenance of charter schools. As a longtime education reform advocate, Hastings has argued the best way to fix our broken education system is to introduce competition and force public schools to improve in order to retain students and parents.
“If public schools don’t adopt the same principles of competition and accountability as exist in the private and nonprofit sectors, they will continue to deteriorate,” Hastings says in a statement posted on the website of the New Schools Venture Fund.
His donation has already been criticized by public school advocates as more damaging to students than if the public school system remains the same, but with more money. Liberal activists have criticized the donation as “more evidence that the push to privatize traditional public schools across America is a pet project of Silicon Valley’s billionaire boy’s [sic] club,” suggesting that Hastings is a stooge of big corporations, and not a businessman with real ideas for reform.
But simply infusing cash into the monopolistic education system did not work for Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, whose $200 million donation to Newark’s education system is widely considered a boondoggle and a waste of hard-earned money. Zuckerberg’s well-meaning donation was squandered by the education system, leaving no significant positive effect on the Newark traditional public school system. The president of the Urban League of Essex County summed the situation up nicely when she said of the donation, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
Although the bulk of the donation went to status-quo system items like legacy labor costs, expensive consultants and bureaucratic overhead, the $50 million that went to charter schools created real results for Newark students. For example, when the charter network Uncommon Schools took over North Star Academy Alexander Street School, the students were years behind their grade level. “Fourth graders were reading at first grade level, unable to understand phonics,” and in math students had difficulty doing “simple counting exercises.”
Fortunately, the staff at Alexander rose to the challenge, taking time out of the day to review simple concepts in order to prepare students for the PARCC exam, and conducting a massive outreach campaign to get parents involved. The staff’s efforts paid off, and the students closed most of the gap with the state average in English and actually passed by the results of more affluent schools in math, a result that before seemed like a pipe dream.
Alexander is not the only charter school doing well in Newark. Newark is ranked second of the nation’s leading charter schools and those charter schools are providing excellent education to poor, minority students who may not have had a chance in a traditional public school.
Perhaps Hastings was looking to the lessons of Newark when he chose to invest his donation in the competitive, flexible and innovative charter school sector, rather than in the stagnant system where, if Newark is any guide, his money would have little impact on student achievement. Reed Hastings’ $100 million, unlike Zuckerberg’s, is going to have a real impact on systematically underfunded charter schools and the students who attend them. If the small percentage of funds devoted to the charter sector Newark achieved so much, imagine what this donation could do for students across the country.
Hastings’ generous philanthropic investment in charter schools will create improvement in the lives of millions of children currently struggling in the public school system. Hopefully other wealthy Americans concerned with failure in the country’s schools will follow Hastings’ lead rather than Zuckerberg’s, and invest in innovative options rather than doubling down on the status quo.