Two years ago, Jeff Bezos announced that he would be committing $2 billion towards the Day One Fund, his first large philanthropic endeavor. The fund, the Amazon founder and CEO wrote, would focus on two areas: supporting existing organizations that provide shelter and food for families without a home, and creating “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.”
In the same note, posted on his Instagram and Twitter accounts (his preferred platforms for personal announcements), Bezos said he would build an organization to operate the schools.“I’m excited about that because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve,” he wrote. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”
Fast forward today. The Bezos Academy is opening its first school in the town of Des Moines, Washington, just to the south of Seattle where Amazon is based. In another Instagram post in September, Bezos shared that the first day of the school will be October 19, along with a photo of a classroom with a bookshelf, lined with titles such as My Papi Has A Motorcycle and Pita & Ralph’s Rotten Day. “This classroom is just the beginning,” the richest person in the world wrote. “This one in Des Moines, WA, is the first of many free preschools that we’ll be opening for underserved children.”
Bezos, who is worth $203 billion thanks largely to his 11.1% stake in Amazon, joins a number of tech billionaires, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who have poured millions of dollars into education initiatives — some with limited success, others, some say, to the detriment of the communities they had been intended to serve. Bezos, however, differs from other billionaires’ approach in that he is building his own eponymous schools, with his own Montessori-inspired curriculum. This strategy has rattled some early learning experts, including those who have worked for decades in programs that already offer free preschool programs to low-income students in the state of Washington.
Among their criticisms: Bezos and team’s lack of communication, understanding and partnership with the local community and stakeholders. If the Bezos team had reached out to them, they said, they would have asked Bezos to fund existing programs that have decades of early education research behind them, which are now on the brink of collapse because the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of many of these schools and childcare providers.
“The announcement [of the Des Moines school] caught people off guard a little bit,” says Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association for Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Head Start is a federally funded program for low-income families that offers free preschool and other family well-being services. ECEAP serves mostly the same population as Head Start, but is state-funded. “While it’s great that Jeff Bezos wants to be more involved in this area, there’s an existing system that’s crumbling. We are also trying to triage amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and do more to strengthen the current system?”
A source familiar with Bezos’ thinking says that the Bezos Academy team did meet with local stakeholders, including the mayor of Des Moines, superintendents of school districts in the area, local childhood advocacy groups, housing authorities and religious institutions, though this person did not disclose names of any specific organizations. The Bezos Academy did not respond to a list of questions.
It’s likely that Bezos has already considered the option of funding existing programs — and is choosing not to for reasons that may be more personal than analytical. A year before he announced the Bezos Day One fund, Bezos—who had been long criticized for not doing enough in charity despite being the richest person in the world—asked on Twitter for ideas on how to embark on his philanthropic chapter, and received 47,000 responses. “I read through thousands and thousands of them,” Bezos said in a 2018 interview at The Economic Club of Washington D.C., days after he announced the Day One Fund. “It turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste, heart. That’s what we will do with this Day One Foundation, too.”
In Des Moines, 70% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, according to the mayor, Matt Pina. “I would be one of the last people on this planet to tell Mr. Bezos or anyone else who wants to invest in education exactly how they will do it,” says Pina. “If Mr. Bezos has the belief that he can help the children of the community and wants to work with the kids who are here, I’m happy to have them.”
“There is a tremendous need here,” the mayor adds. “Not all students learn the same way, and sometimes these private programs are necessary. I am personally willing to work with anybody who wants to forward the educational programs that this community needs.”
But Janice Deguchi, an executive director at Neighborhood House, a Seattle-based nonprofit that offers services for low income families, believes Bezos would do better working with existing programs. “There are already a lot of resources and community leaders that have interest and passion for serving a community that, frankly, he knows nothing about,” she says. “He doesn’t live there, work there, and he is imposing his vision which comes from his own lived experience of what he thinks is the best for the community, versus listening to the communities.”
If Bezos or any other wealthy donor were to fund existing free preschool programs for low-income families in Washington, there are many areas that their wealth can fill, according to Karin Ganz, an administrator at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). They include supporting more mental health consultation services for parents and students, higher pay for Head Start and ECEAP teachers (a 2016 report from the Department of Education states the annual median salary for a Head Start early learning teacher in Washington was $30,000), expansion of home visiting programs, and scholarships to support teacher degree attainment.
A core part of Bezos’ vision is having a Montessori-inspired curriculum, a teaching method that requires specific hands-on materials for students, individualized lessons, and teachers that have a recognized Montessori credential — training that takes anywhere from one summer to a full academic year, according to Mira Debs, an executive director of Yale University’s Education Studies Program.
Debs wrote an op-ed in September 2019 for The Washington Post (which Bezos bought in 2013), right after the Amazon founder announced the Day One Fund. Debs had a similar suggestion to the Washington-based early education experts: fund existing programs. A few months later, at her own book signing in Washington D.C., she had an unexpected visitor: Michael George, president of the Bezos Academy. “From what I remember from the conversation, they had a very specific vision for how they wanted to develop their program,” says Debs. “As he explained to me, it was really important that it was something that Amazon was involved in from the beginning until the end.”
This sentiment is shared on the Bezos Day One fund website, which says that “directly operating the preschools creates an opportunity to learn, invent, and improve.” Bezos, who attended a Montessori school when he was two years old in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in an interview with Montessori Life magazine 20 years ago that “it was probably a very formative experience for me to be able to go to those classes, in that environment, and be so stimulated at an early age.”
There are arguments for and against the Montessori method, which could explain why Bezos chose to create his own entity, instead of having to answer to the federal and state mandates that come up with Head Start and ECEAP programs. But working independently has pitfalls of its own, according to Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early development expert and professor emerita at Lesley University. “The best approach is to bring together a task force of experienced, knowledgeable early childhood scholars and educators who can be guides,” she says. “I guess Jeff Bezos chose Montessori because that’s just what he went through and his memory is good, but it doesn’t reflect the best of what we know in the field of early childhood education.”
Bezos shared through an Instagram post that his team has met with “dozens” of national early education experts, including Richard Barth of the charter school network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Ray Girn of Higher Ground, Angeline Lillard of University of Virginia and Debs of Yale.
It’s unclear which other early childhood experts the Bezos Academy team met with, but according to Carlsson-Paige, the majority of those who were named in the Instagram post (with the exception of Barth of KIPP) are affiliated with Montessori schools and methods. “All of these names are people who work in specific areas or silos,” Carlsson-Paige says via email. “It appears that the preferences/biases of the Bezos team guided their selection of ‘leaders’ to consult and will of course shape what they do.”
Which, you could argue, is something a funder is allowed to do. Especially if the funder is planning to spend billions of dollars.
There are examples of good public-private partnerships, Washington educators say, including Bill Gates’ efforts to fund a school in White Center, another town south of Seattle. “The Gates Foundation reached out to Puget Sound Education Services District to say they wanted to do a demonstration project to bolster early learning,” says Lori Pittman, an early learning policy program director in the district, which also covers Des Moines. “At the time, White Center was the most diverse community in the state.”
Gates, in collaboration with a Thrive by Five Washington, a public-private partnership for early learning in Washington, gave $10 million to the school.
But while the school is still in good standing and has made a positive impact in its neighborhood, it didn’t scale. Gates has not followed with another commitment for a school in Washington to date.
This is why a free preschool for low-income children needs to be a public function, according to John Burbank, executive director at the Economic Opportunity Institute. “He should be advocating for public financing and a tax on his own wealth to fund pre-kindergarten and preschool,” Burbank says. “Otherwise, this is just another example of [billionaires] trying to paint a patina of goodwill on top of gross accumulation of wealth and privilege. It does not really serve the public to have these pop-up childcare centers.”
Burbank was friends with the late father of that other Washington billionaire, Bill Gates. Burbank and Bill Gates Sr. worked together on various proposals, including a state estate tax in 2005 (which passed) and an income tax increase in 2010 for individuals earning more than $200,000 (which didn’t pass). According to Burbank, billionaires Bezos and Steve Ballmer contributed at least $100,000 each to a campaign against the ballot (The Seattle Times opposed the income tax measure as well).
Today, Burbank believes that Washington, which has the most regressive state tax structure in the nation, should impose a wealth tax on intangible assets that exceed $1 billion. “It could be a 1% tax,” Burbank says. “In our state, it would tax around a dozen people and it would raise over $4 billion, which could then be used to fund high-quality, universal preschool.”
“No one funds you as consistently as the government,” says James Lovell, a colleague of Deguchi’s at Neighborhood House, who runs fundraising for the organization. “When you’re putting a building in someone’s community, you’re making a promise. You’ve got to find a way to do it for a long time — otherwise, it’s just a band-aid. We have great private funders, but if we want to keep this promise from 1960 to 2020, it means someone that will stick with us for a long time. For us, that has been the federal government.”
Though many billionaires oppose paying higher taxes, a number of others have voiced support for it. Gates backed the 2010 ballot measure that his father and Burbank worked on. Warren Buffett has also advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy. Tom Steyer, former hedge fund manager turned environmentalist and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, included a wealth tax on his campaign platform. And last year Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce wrote an entire op-ed for the New York Times advocating for higher taxes on his own class.
Bezos has not publicly commented on the idea of a wealth tax, but it’s been well documented just how much Amazon—which has a market capitalization of $1.6 trillion and reported pre-tax income of $13.9 billion in 2019—works to minimize its tax bill. After two years of paying $0 in U.S. federal income tax, Amazon paid $162 million in taxes last year.
The educators who spoke with Forbes acknowledge that the one Bezos Academy in Des Moines is probably not going to affect the early learning ecosystem much. But if the plan is to open a nationwide network, they hope that Bezos will take their considerations into account. “If he could invest in existing programs and talk to us about how he could use his resources and his influence to elevate the conversation and benefit the entire learning system, that would be extremely welcome,” says Deguchi of Neighborhood House. “We just don’t want to become the next independent booksellers that Amazon targets.”