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Bezos targets homeless families, under-served preschoolers with $2 billion fund, but details are few

September 14, 2018
Matt Day and Benjamin Romano
The Seattle Times

The world’s richest man announced a plan to donate about 1.2 percent of his current wealth to address family homelessness and early childhood education, drawing praise and raising questions about the mark Jeff Bezos intends to make and how a new and powerful funder will influence the recipients of his largesse.

More than a year after publicly soliciting suggestions for a short-term philanthropic strategy, the Amazon founder said Thursday that he and his wife, MacKenzie, would commit $2 billion to fund existing nonprofits working with homeless families and to create a network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities.

The initiative, national in scope but already influenced by Seattle-based efforts, will be called the Bezos Day One Fund, a name that transplants the business philosophy that built Amazon squarely on to Bezos’ biggest philanthropic effort yet.

The Day 1 Families Fund will make annual awards to organizations “doing compassionate, needle moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families,” while the Day 1 Academies Fund will start and operate a network of “full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” Bezos said on Twitter.

He described an organization to operate the preschool network modeled on Amazon’s corporate principles, most importantly “genuine, intense customer obsession,” he said. “The child will be the customer.”

An Amazon spokesman didn’t have details on who would run Bezos’ new initiative, or where the group would be based. The $2 billion, he said, is a starting point, but no timeline was revealed for spending even that sum.

The structure of Bezos’ new philanthropic push is still coming into focus….

Bezos’ focus on early childhood education could have an out-sized impact.

A large body of education research has shown that early learning programs, which serve children up to 4 years old, can improve social, academic and economic outcomes for students who traditionally fall behind once they enter kindergarten.

Advocates welcomed Bezos’ attention, approach and funds, noting the dire need to expand access to preschool, particularly in the low-income areas he plans to target. But there hasn’t been much research on whether Montessori programs, a model of schooling that encourages children to direct their own learning, improve outcomes for low-income students, said Steve Barnett, founder and co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

“If they can bring what they’ve learned in business to quality improvement then maybe they can provide some real innovation,” Barnett said.

Washington receives high marks for spending on preschool, according to Barnett’s group, but its eligibility requirements are so rigid that enrollment growth here is slower than the national average. A family of four with yearly income above $27,600 typically doesn’t qualify for the state’s Early Childhood Education Assistance Program. A general lack of funding means only a fraction of poor families can enroll their kids in government-subsidized programs.