Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Pledges Billions for Montessori (Inspired)
As most of the Montessori world, and a good chunk of the rest of the world, knows by now, Amazon founding CEO and multi billionaire Jeff Bezos announced what appears to be a major philanthropic initiative on Twitter this week. Bezos’ Day One Fund consist of two projects: the Day 1 Families Fund, which will fund “existing non-profits that help homeless families”, and the Day 1 Academies Fund, which will create “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”, or “launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” which are two not-quite-the-same descriptions from the announcement.
There’s been quite a lot of parsing of this announcement, since it came out as a surprise to the Montessori and philanthropic communities without any additional information, so let’s try to break down what it says, what it doesn’t, and what is going on.
First, it is the case that Jeff Bezos attended a Montessori children’s house program in Albuquerque for “a year and a half, starting at age 2 1/2.” He’s often cited as part of the so-called “Montessori Mafia” of the creative elite, including Montessori alumni Larry Page and Sergei Brin (Google), Will Wright (the Sims), and Julia Child (Mastering the art of French Cooking)—but not, as is often claimed, Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), who has disavowed the association.
It’s also the case that Bezos is a relatively new entrant to the world of high-dollar philanthropic investment by tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. Up to now his contributions have been in the tens of millions, not billions—nothing to sniff at, to be sure, but not on the scale of his peers among America’s wealthiest and most successful people. Last year, Bezos notably requested guidance from his followers on Twitter as to how to direct his philanthropic strategy. So he is new to this world, and he is coming at it in a way that is characteristically, what can we call it? Disruptive?
Then, scale—that’s what make this so startling. What does one billion in philanthropy look like? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put about that much into global malaria control since 2011. The Ford Foundation is giving $1 billion over five years to 300 social justice organizations. So $2billion—there’s no sense, yet, of the time frame for the investment—is national, maybe even global in scale.
Finally, the element of surprise. As the New York Times put it, “few were more surprised than Montessori organizations and leaders themselves” by Bezos’ announcement. And what’s really surprising is that it was such a surprise. This just isn’t how this kind of thing is usually done. When the Gates Foundation spends $1 billion on malaria, it’s spending into a well established network of partners and channels working in the field. This is different, at least at this stage. But then again, Bezos didn’t get Amazon to where it is today by doing things the way they’re usually done.
So the scale, the surprise, and the brevity of the announcement has invited a lot of interpretation and parsing, with articles in the New York Times, Forbes, Education Week, Chalkbeat, and more. Let’s have a look at what he actually said.
First, the announcement calls for “a commitment of $2 billion and focus on two areas.” But it doesn’t say how much for each! For all we know, it could be $1.9B for homeless shelters and $100,000 left for schools. Unlikely perhaps but there’s no way of knowing for now, although most publications (including this one!) have taken the billion and run with it.
Then there’s the “network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.” A network implies connectedness, and (later in the tweet) “launch and operate” sounds like it will be the Day 1 Foundation’s network, not someone else’s. “Non-profit” is intriguing, especially coming from the founder of a for-profit company which was once notorious for not making profits. But due to U.S. tax law, many if not most private schools are non-profits, so this may not mean much either way. “Tier-one” sounds like education jargon but here it seems to mean simply “first-rate”. Finally, “in low-income communities” is laudable, but it does manage to glide over a central issue in U.S. education and social policy: Why are there low-income communities in the first place? That is, why do we live so increasingly segregated by income? How is it that the educational opportunities in these communities are so lacking that they are in need of something like this?
That’s in the announcement of the two funds. The fuller description comprises two sentences which I’ve edited together here: “The Day 1 Acadamies Fund will build an organization to [..] .launch and [directly] operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” “Build, launch, and operate” sounds like a brand new venture, separate from and potentially in competition with existing networks and programs, so you can see how that makes existing players a little nervous. Then again, they are his billions. $1 billion could fund 1000 schools at $1 million each, which would be a big network. “High quality” is referenced again, which sounds promising. “Full scholarship” also carries implications. Will there be tuition for some families? Who qualifies for scholarship and how? Scholarship is different from a network of free, publicly available programs…such as conventional public schools. Then, “underserved communities” again, which is promising and also potentially problematic.
Oh, and, a little out of order—“Montessori-inspired.” This is the phrase that has the Montessori world really jumping up and down. “Montessori-inspired” or “Montessori-lite” or even “Monte-something” are terms with a powerful, mostly negative associations in the Montessori world. And Montessorians’ concerns about “watered-down” Montessori are well-grounded, as research suggests that Montessori works best when it’s fully implemented.
So it seems, going on just this one tweet, that there is a lot here to explore and learn about, on all sides—Montessori could stand to suspend judgement a bit while we learn more about what Bezos has in mind, and Bezos could perhaps stand to learn a bit more about Montessori and the existing Montessori ecosystem. Fortunately, the Montessori world has not been slow to offer some lessons and demonstrations.
Montessori Facebook pretty much exploded with the news. We don’t know if Bezos follows these pages or not, but the reaction might not have been exactly what he was expecting. Many took issue with “Montessori-inspired” and “the child will be the customer,” which is perhaps understandable given perspectives common (although not universal) among Montessorians. More than a few responders suggested that if Bezos wanted to improve the lives of low-income families, he could raise wages at Amazon. Some raised legitimate questions about the role of billionaire philanthropy in U.S. education, a concern that has found expression recently in mainstream editorial writing. And many raised issues of equity and representation, in particular in a press releasefrom Montessori for Social Justice.
Still, the fact remains that world economic history has brought us to this moment where Bezos, Gates, and others like them are in the position to do a lot of good in the world with the wealth they have amassed, and plenty of people were saying, “go ahead and take the money.”
The world of Montessori institutions mounted a more coordinated response. Over the last seven years, supported by the funder collaborative Trust For Learning, national and international Montessori organizations have joined forces in the Montessori Leaders Collaborative (MLC) to “advocate for Montessori education through a strong, proactive, and collective voice.” MLC and Trust leaders worked behind the scenes to urge Montessori organizations to collaborate on a response, rather than jockeying for position for influence, access, and their particular Montessori focus. This was an opportunity for Montessori, in association with high-level education funders such as the Buffet Early Childhood Fund and the Brady Education Foundation (among others) to speak with one voice from the perspective of knowledgable, committed people and organizations already deeply invested in this work. Their letter to Bezos has the potential to be the opening round of a conversation in which we can see if our priorities and principles and his are truly in alignment, and to learn from one another what will be the best way to go forward.
The public culmination, however, of all these responses manifested in an article in the New York Times on September 21, probably the one thing that people outside of the Montessori world are likely to encounter. In large part because of the intentional coordination, the right people were reached and important Montessori concerns were heard and well-represented. Rebecca Pelton, President of the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) spoke out for the need for high quality teacher training. “Montessori is not copyrighted” made its way in, as did Angeline Lillard’s research supporting high fidelity programs. Montessori’s origins with low-income children was mentioned, along with Mira Debs’ research into equity in modern Montessori schools. And the piece closed with a powerful quote from Faybra Hemphill, a Montessori for Social Justice board member and director of racial equity, curriculum and training at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis:
“Go to the communities, talk to parents, talk to children, talk to teachers and administrators and ask them: ‘What do you need? What are your hopes and dreams for education and for your children?’”
“Because otherwise,” she added, “what will happen is that we’re doing this to the community instead of for the community.”
It remains to be seen what happens next. MontessoriPublic will publish updates as they develop.