zuckerberg / TNS Sofres

June 29th, 2017; Education Week

Since the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative was formed, NPQ has been following its work and its impact on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. The concern has been that in structuring such a large commitment as an LLC rather than as a trust or another form of charitable gift, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg upset the norms that have protected the public interest. In an earlier NPQ story, I raised this concern directly, writing that What Zuckerberg and Chan have done is more an act of investing in themselves than a decision to give away their assets. It privatizes the way these funds will be directed and minimizes the public’s control of how charitable dollars are spent. In a time when there is a growing concentration of wealth in the United States, as illustrated by a study recently published by the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, the difference this makes presents a great danger to our nation’s civil society in general and to the nonprofit sector.

The potential problem became even more clear last fall, when the initiative announced a $3 billion commitment to create the Biohub . Zuckerberg declared that the Initiative’s goal was to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases within our children’s lifetime.” He left unclear how the benefits of the Biohub would be shared. Stephen Quake, CZI’s co-president, told BuzzFeed, “Some people feel that, for certain inventions, they need to have patent protection for those inventions to receive the investment and funding necessary to bring them to market and help people. And other people feel that their inventions are best disseminated by just giving them away for free.” Quake left unclear how CZI would act and whether its decisions would be shared with the public.

CZI is now turning its economic might to improving public education, a field in which  Zuckerberg has previously shown interest. In 2010, he invested $100 million in an unsuccessful attempt to improve Newark’s schools. Public education is a politically charged environment, and  the entry of a large, privately held organization like CZI raises the same issues of social responsibility that have marked this effort from its beginning.

CZI appointed former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education and set out an agenda that was described by Education Week as “‘whole-child personalized learning,’ with the aim of dramatically expanding the scope and scale of efforts to provide every student with a customized education.” With Zuckerberg’s background, it is not surprising that he would want to build a computer-based “personalized learning” approach. CZI’s strategy will be backed with the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars that can be committed to the work, either as for-profit investments or as charitable donations. Will CZI use its resources to fuel development and implementation within the current education structure? Or will it, based only on the vision of its two founders, seek to change public education to align with their vision?

It remains unclear how much “public” there will be in the this new CZI investment and how its work will be shared with the field. Public education is in a fierce struggle over control and public accountability. For some, public governance is a problem that can best be fixed by privatization. Will CZI be another force for minimizing public control? As with the Biohub, CZI is not being very forthcoming about how they will answer this question. “Despite professing a ‘commitment philosophically to transparency,’ Shelton declined to commit to letting the public know of all the initiative’s philanthropic grants and for-profit investments,” Education Week noted.

CZI does recognize the political nature of public education and is considering how it will enter the discussion. In addition to developing new and more effective ways to educate children, it has the potential to become a significant player in forming public policy. Education Week described how deeply CZI’s Education Initiative is into the process of developing a political strategy.

CZI is “just figuring out how to use” the policy-advocacy tools at its disposal. The organization does not currently have a specific education policy agenda it is seeking to advance…But CZI won’t rule out the possibility that it might engage in a host of political activities in the future, including giving to candidates and establishing its own 501(c)4 organization or political action committee. Nor would the initiative commit to publicly disclosing such activity if it occurs. Despite professing a “commitment philosophically to transparency,” Shelton declined to commit to letting the public know of all the initiative’s philanthropic grants and for-profit investments.

Will Chan and Zuckerberg see the value of openness and democracy? Will they recognize the difference between the public and private sectors? Or as successful entrepreneurs, will they see no need for public checks and balances? With each step forward by CZI it appears that they see themselves as capable of balancing public and private interests with little input from the public. They are asking us to trust their good intent and their ability to protect the common good. Despite their being smart, successful, and generous, this does not bode well.—Marty Levine