Maybe being super rich doesn’t mean you know everything?

By Ben Udashen

After years of being oligarch shamed by fellow .00001 percenters, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has announced a new philanthropy plan to put a portion of his billions to work doing some very charity and very needed PR. Along with dealing with issues of homelessness and housing (an obvious nod to the predicament the retail powerhouse has put on its home city of Seattle), Bezos group has decided to put an emphasis on early childhood education as a key area for his Day 1 fund to support. As quoted in Bezos’s own Washington Post: “We know for a fact that if a kid falls behind it’s really, really hard to catch up.”

In 2018, having quality early childhood educators is key for success in any social setting. Poorer and more disadvantaged kids tend to arrive in kindergarten with a smaller vocabulary than middle and upper class kids. This pushes poorer kids onto slower tracks for academic and professional achievement. Supporting childcare centers and preschools is an absolute social necessity for any civilized society.

It is a truly bizarre reality that of all ages to not offer public schools for it would be children under the age of 5. The impact of time spent supporting children at these ages is monumental, as human brains are developing at an accelerated rate during these development stages. So, good on Jeff Bezos for noticing what has been painfully obvious to childcare workers like myself for generations: this work matters and needs to be supported.

There was another “richest man in the world from Seattle” who also attempted to use his billions to build a philanthropic apparatus. He even focused on improving educational outcomes by bringing in techniques from the business world and cutting edge science with their financial largess: Bill Gates. His foundation became intrinsically linked to the corporate school reform movement, typified by charter schools and increased usage of standardized tests, helping launch pilot programs all throughout the world to attempt to bring the efficiency of corporate America to the slumbering blob of education that had been held down generations of bad teachers, evil unions, and poor management.

And you know what? It failed. This year, after over a decade of pouring billions into faulty educational theories and attempts to turn children’s entire being into a spreadsheet, the RAND corporation released a study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that proved what educators and parents have known for years: these ideas don’t work in education. From the RAND study: “student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better” after years of the program being in effect.

From what is available about Bezos’ Day 1 fund, it appears that the program will follow a similar path to the Gates Foundation. The hyper efficiency that defines Amazon’s business practices and culture is on display in this Bezos’s description of these schools:“the child is the customer”. This is another manifestation of the trend of neoliberal thought and governance that we should run “blank” like a business; that we should let competition and the market being the engine of change to combat social ills. This has already been a dangerous line of thinking within education of middle and school aged children as well as through public private partnerships and austerity politics that has lead to disasters like the drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

So while this childcare worker is glad to see such an important field getting extra attention and financial support, the whims of a uniquely rich man should not define public policy concerning early childhood education. Without even trying to achieve this purpose, these gigantic philanthropic funds have become their own major players in the market, exercising political power extra nationally, outside of the realm of democratic control or scrutiny. Sadly, the political class’s failure to adequately combat the challenges presented can make these anti democratic institutions seem like a welcome respite from the gridlock and austerity that has defined political life.

Instead of building an education system around the whims and public images of oligarchs, the people must take back the commons and claim it for ourselves. These institutions are too vital to community to be sold off to hucksters like the school reform movement. Funds and foundations like the proposed Day 1 can have massive effects on societies. It’s impact dwarfs that of other nations and NGOs in their own citizens day to day existence.

In light of Amazon’s obvious influence on the Seattle political elite (most notably in the city council’s reversal on a proposed Head Tax for large employers), the news of Bezos’s interest in giving charitably to early childhood care deliverers and those experiencing homelessness feels especially hollow. When Bezos pressures liberal politicians in Seattle to fold on cost effective ways to combat homelessness then unveils Day 1, he is spitting in the eye of democratic governance. “I know what’s best”, he is telling us.

This is the inescapable mindset of the super wealthy. That they know what is best, because they deserve what they have. We can no longer just accept corporate power grabs into the public sector because there’s no other choice, or else there may be no public sector left.

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