Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos and wife, MacKenzie, plan to spend $2 billion to help the homeless and to expand early childhood education. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos announced last week that he and his wife, MacKenzie, plan to spend $2 billion of their fortune to help the homeless and to expand early-childhood education in low-income communities.

The $2 billion investment will be the first from what the Bezoses are calling the Bezos Day One Fund. Nonprofit organizations that help homeless families can apply for grants, Bezos said, and he and his wife will launch an organization to operate a network of high-quality, nonprofit, free preschools. (Bezos is owner of The Washington Post.)

Bezos said in his statement (see it in full at the end of the post) that he had solicited ideas about how he should help others, and he and his wife decided on this:

We're excited today to announce the Bezos Day One Fund. It will begin with a commitment of $2 billion and focus on two areas: funding existing non-profits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.

The Day 1 Families Fund will issue annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families. The vision statement comes from the inspiring Mary's Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside.

The Day 1 Academies Fund will launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities. We will build an organization to directly operate these preschools. I’m excited about that because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve. 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. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” And lighting that fire early is a giant leg up for any child.

Two billion dollars is a lot of money (Bezos’s estimated fortune is more than $150 billion, the largest in modern history when adjusted for inflation) and can, presumably, do a lot of good for a lot of people if used well.

As for using it well, the Bezos initiative has the virtue of being different from much of what we’ve seen from other education philanthropists in recent years: It is supported by research on what works for kids. Many education investments from others, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, were not.

But it raises larger issues about modern philanthropy and about a movement in this country to privatize public functions. It also highlights the role of the wealthy in policymaking.

In recent years, America’s wealthiest citizens have poured, collectively, billions of dollars into efforts to change public education. Some believe the public system is inefficient; some simply don’t believe in the public sector. Whatever the motive, these billionaires have been able to drive the public education agenda in myriad ways. That includes pouring money into pet projects through nonprofit organizations that they create or heavily fund, giving money directly to school districts to pursue initiatives, or taking a leading role in public-private partnerships.

But critics say it is fundamentally undemocratic for private individuals to take over basic responsibilities of government, such as helping the homeless and educating kids. In a democracy, public policy should not be driven by people who are not elected and who are accountable to no one but themselves, these critics say.

Bezos’s use of business language in his announcement also raises questions about his approach to preschool. He said he would use “the same set of principles that have driven Amazon” and make the child “the customer.”

With this, he sounds like school “reformers” who have attempted for years to inject business principles — competition, the use of big data, “measurable” results, “disruption” — into the operations of schools and systems that educate millions of children each year.

Those who want to adapt business principles to schools say that traditional public schools have failed too many children and that alternatives should be expanded. These include charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated; online learning; and programs that use public money for religious and private education.

But critics say civic institutions, such as the country’s long-prized public education system, operate differently than businesses. Years of efforts to run schools like businesses have not broadly worked but, instead, have saddled public schools with dubious accountability systems and other problems.

Critics say children aren’t products whose outcomes can be measured solely by data. And if a business’s relationship with its customer can be described as transactional, a school’s relationship with its students cannot; it is deeper and far more complex.

Larry Cuban’s 2004 book, “The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses,” tells the story about an epiphany had by Jamie Vollmer, a former ice cream company executive who became an education advocate. Vollmer wrote “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” When speaking at a school, he made teachers angry with his insistence that schools should be run like businesses. He said in part:

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure, and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced — equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Eli Broad, Alice Walton and Michael Bloomberg are just a few of the philanthropists who have sunk fortunes into efforts to “reform” public education in a corporate model — often ignoring what the best education research tells us works for kids.

(There are a lot of big donors in this space, as detailed in a new report titled “Hijacked by Billionaires” by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public education advocacy group.)

Sometimes, these philanthropists direct money to school systems for the creation or use of curriculum, educational technology and assessment systems. And, sometimes, they get involved in elections for school boards, city councils, mayors and governors by financially supporting candidates who want to expand charter schools or programs that use public money for religious and private education.

Consider Gates’s many forays into the education world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the largest education philanthropy in the country and probably the world — has spent more than $2 billion on education initiatives. Yet the Microsoft founder has conceded those investments largely haven’t worked well — or at all — including one to create teacher evaluation models that used student test scores. Assessment experts warned that using the scores in this manner was not valid, but Gates believes in “measurable” results and “accountability,” and did it anyway, in concert with the Obama administration. A recent report declared it a bust, which came as no surprise to teachers.

Gates also funded a multimillion-dollar charter school ballot initiative in Washington state, along with Jackie and Mike Bezos (Bezos’s parents), Walton and other wealthy school “reformers” because they wanted charter schools in the state — even though voters had rejected them three times. The initiative narrowly passed, though the state Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional. Legislators enacted a charter school law in 2016, which is being challenged in the courts, and there are now only about 10 charter schools in Washington state.

In fact, there are already excellent working models for just about everything that Gates funded in public education in the past 15 years — how to design and operate small schools, quality standards, fair and reliable teacher evaluation and teacher preparation. The same holds true for other philanthropists, leaving many educators to wonder why so much money was spent on projects they considered unnecessary.

Another thing to consider about Bezos’s statement that he will use Amazon principles in building his preschool network: the treatment of workers. According to this Aug. 23 article in The Post:

Bezos, who founded Amazon in 1994, has seen his net worth  steadily climb in recent months as the stock market hits record highs.  He is currently worth $157 billion, up from $99 billion a year ago, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires  Index. The median Amazon worker, meanwhile, was paid $28,446 last year,  according to company filings. (The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600.)

Early childhood educators are among the lowest-paid teachers, even those with a college degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for these teachers in 2017 was $28,990 a year. Preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn on average less than even kindergarten teachers, and often less than fast-food workers and other jobs requiring minimal training. While there has been a movement to elevate the status and salary of preschool educators at state-funded schools, it remains to be seen whether it will affect privately operated preschools, such as the ones Bezos wants to open.

The Bezos plan calls for opening preschools operated in the Montessori model, based on the work of the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. She believed that children learn best by working with materials — not through direct academic instruction — and when they have license to choose their own activities. Kids in these schools don’t sit at desks with work sheets; instead, they learn about focusing, independence, sensory exploration, problem solving and other skills by doing art and science projects, or sweeping the floor and wiping the table.

Early-childhood education is a focus of the Bezos Family Foundation, run by his parents. And it has been a passion of his mother’s, who created Vroom, an initiative to spotlight the science behind early brain development and to guide parents in using daily routines to help kids develop their brain power.

The best research on preschool says it offers benefits throughout a child’s education and beyond (though, as with any subject in education, you can find research to say it fades by third or fourth grade). W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, wrote in a report titled “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K":

The most recent peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizes the results of 123 studies. It found that despite some decline in effects after children entered school, on average effects did not disappear and remained substantial. It found that despite some decline in effects after children entered school, on average effects did not disappear and remained substantial.

Cognitive gains from preschool programs were larger when programs focused on intentional and individualized teaching and small group learning. Programs with these features produced long-term cognitive effects equivalent to one half or more of the achievement gap through the end of high school. This is consistent with the findings of previous meta-analyses. More broadly, long-term effects include gains in achievement and in social-emotional development, less grade repetition and special education, and increased high school graduation. The average long-term cognitive effect is about half the size of the average initial effect, suggesting that relatively large initial effects are required to produce substantial long-term gains. The bottom line: pre-K does produce substantial long-term gains, particularly when programs are properly designed.

Bezos made his announcement while he was in the District last week on a visit, during which he appeared at the Economic Club in conversation with financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein. Though Bezos was not talking specifically about his new fund, he offered insight into how he thinks about the public and private sectors:

“If you have a mission, you can do it with government, you can do it with nonprofit and you can do with for-profit.  If you can figure out how to do it with for-profit that has a lot of advantages for many reasons. One, it’s self-sustaining. . . . Here’s my iPhone. The last thing we need is a company, a non-profit company making phones. It turns out there’s a healthy competitive ecosystem that likes to build these things.”

But, he said, nonprofit structures work to solve problems when there isn’t a market solution, citing as an example the Gates Foundation’s effort to create vaccines that don’t have to be refrigerated.

Bezos then said there is no nonprofit model that can operate the military and court system, leaving their work to the government domain.

It remains to be seen how all of this will play out, and what will come from the promised $2 billion investment by Jeffrey and MacKenzie Bezos. You can be sure that public education advocates will closely watch every step.

Here’s the full Bezos statement:

I talk often about the importance of maintaining a Day 1 mentality. It's always Day 1, and I work hard to apply that mindset to everything I do. It was a Day 1 outlook that made me reach out to ask for suggestions on approaches to philanthropy last year. By so many important measures the world keeps getting better, and it's one of the fantastic aspects of human nature that we humans never stop looking for (and finding!) ways to improve things. Our lives are better than our great grandparents' lives, and their lives were better than their great grandparents' lives before them. If our own great grandchildren don't have lives better than ours, something has gone very wrong. Where's the good in the world, and how can we spread it? Where are the opportunities to make things better? These are exciting questions.

MacKenzie and I share a belief in the potential for hard work from anyone to serve others. We all have that capacity. Business innovators who invent products that empower, authors who write books that inspire, government officials who serve their communities, teachers, doctors, carpenters, entertainers who make us laugh and cry, parents who raise children who go on to live lives of compassion, and many more. In addition to Amazon my areas of focus so far have included investment in the future of our planet and civilization through the development of foundational space infrastructure, support of American democracy through stewardship of the Washington Post, and financial contributions to the dedicated and innovative champions of a variety of causes, from cancer research, to marriage equality, to college scholarships for immigrant students, to decreasing political polarization through cross-partisan support of principled, next-generation military vets running for Congress.

We're excited today to announce the Bezos Day One Fund. It will begin with a commitment of $2 billion and focus on two areas: funding existing non-profits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.

The Day 1 Families Fund will issue annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families. The vision statement comes from the inspiring Mary’s Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside.

The Day 1 Academies Fund will launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities. We will build an organization to directly operate these preschools. I’m excited about that because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve. 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. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” And lighting that fire early is a giant leg up for any child.

I want to close by thanking everyone who sent me suggestions, and for the inspiring examples of innovation I see every day, large and small. It fills me with gratitude and optimism to be part of a species so bent on self-improvement.

It remains Day 1!

Jeff