Education Reform: Waiting for the Super Rich?

Everybody’s talking about education these days. NBC and its various satellite networks recently ended a week-long examination of education, and there’s been much talk of late about the release of Davis Guggenheim’s most recent film, Waiting for Superman, which follows five students in various cities across America as they attempt to win places at local charter schools.

The education-related headline that probably received the most attention recently, though, was Mark Zuckerberg ‘s announcement that he would be donating $100 million of Facebook stock to the Newark, New Jersey school district. Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced the gift on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show, and some critics pointed out that Zuckerberg’s gift seemed to coincide with the negative press he’s been receiving lately around the release of The Social Network, a movie about Facebook’s founding that depicts Zuckerberg in an unflattering light. PR value aside, most have heralded the gift, and some have even drawn connections between Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, perhaps the most widely renowned philanthropist of the new century.

Lost in all the talk about Zuckerberg’s gift, however, is an examination of why he’s being celebrated in the first place. One could argue that any celebration of Zuckerberg’s gift is, in fact, a concession to the idea that people with such outsized wealth — Zuckerberg is worth about four billion dollars according to Forbes — should be celebrated for making incredibly important decisions about (in this case, anyway) which public school districts receive such needed money, and which do not. Zuckerberg apparently decided to give money to Newark Public Schools after a series of discussions with Corey Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark. What would have happened had he hit it off with, say, the mayor of DC, or of Dallas instead?

Zuckerberg is allowed to make these decisions, of course; however, we’ve yet to fully understand how the selective beneficence of wealthy folks like Zuckerberg and Gates will play out in the long run, and how those who aren’t lucky enough to capture the attention of Zuckerberg or the Gates Foundation will respond. For all of their good works, what are the ramifications of folks like Zuckerberg and Gates transferring the wealth and power they’ve gained in business to their philanthropic endeavors? In other words, does success in one field automatically qualify them for respect and prestige in another?