In the Latest Big Zuckerberg Gift, a Glimpse of the New New Education Philanthropy


The other day, we argued that Mark Zuckerberg’s education giving has evolved significantly since his first major foray into philanthropy, when he made that now notorious $100 million gift to improve Newark schools in 2010.

Related: Let's Stop Beating the Same Familiar Drum About Mark Zuckerberg's Failure in Newark

Today, comes yet more evidence of this shift, with the announcement that Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are giving $20 million to help more public schools get high-speed Internet access.

I’ll get to that gift in a moment, but first, let’s consider the bigger picture of ed philanthropy right now. In a few recent posts, we’ve suggested that education donors seem to be moving in some fresh directions—away from the contested terrain of charter schools and teacher accountability to other issues, especially how students learn.

You might call this the new new education philanthropy.

While top ed funders like Walton, Gates, and Broad have long been the dominant drivers of the new education philanthropy, we’re now seeing other very deep-pocketed funders showing up, with some different priorities. Laurene Powell Jobs is one of these new donors, and has prioritized reinventing high schools to foster more creative thinking. George Lucas is another, vowing to put his billions behind a liberal education vision that also emphasizes new approaches to learning. Still another new ed funder is the Sandler Foundation, which recently helped bankroll the creation of the Learning Policy Institute, with the goal of finding better ways to foster critical thinking and creativity in public schools.


When Zuckerberg began his education philanthropy with the Newark gift, he aligned himself with the bomb-throwing ed funders—those who’ve dreamed of blowing up existing public systems and creating new systems with charter schools and rules that make it easier to get of rid of weak teachers. Many people still reflexively place him in that camp.

Lately, though, he’s migrated toward the new new education philanthropy. He said recently that advancing personalized learning is his top funding priority. And while his $120 million bid to improve Bay Area schools does include support for charters, it’s decidedly not aiming to bulldoze aside the existing local establishment. Zuckerberg learned the hard way how badly that high-handed approach can go wrong.

The latest Zuckerberg/Chan gift of $20 million for high-speed Internet is another indication of this shift. The money will fund EducationSuperHighway, a group the couple have backed before that aims to upgrade Internet access in “every public school classroom in America so that every student has the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning.” In turn, that goal is a key to advancing Zuckerberg's larger vision of personalized learning. "Fast, reliable broadband is the foundational infrastructure that is needed to bring personalized and digital learning to every child and teacher in America," said Jen Holleran of Startup:Education, which handles Zuckerberg and Chan's education giving. 

To close the digital divide in schools, EducationSuperHighway is betting big on policy and advocacy. It wants government to do much more to ensure that public schools get wired with broadband. To be sure, it sees a major role for business in providing such access, and promotes partnerships along these lines. But some of the group’s biggest victories so far have been in federal advocacy, particularly in winning policy changes at the Federal Communications Commission that will bring fast Internet to more schools.

Imagine that: More government as the key to better schools.

EducationSuperHighway hasn’t received any funding from the Walton or Broad foundations (although Gates has kicked in), but it has received backing from the Ford Foundation.

Beyond revealing something about the direction of education giving by Zuckerberg and Chan, this latest gift underscores a broader point I made recently about Zuck and other emerging tech donors, which is that while they are doing some things differently with their philanthropy, they are also employing many familiar approaches to achieving change.

Related: What Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Announcement Tells Us About the New Philanthropy