Can Netflix CEO's $100-million education fund avoid big-donor pitfalls?

The Netflix co-founder and CEO has announced the creation of a $100-million fund for education philanthropy. The Hastings Fund's first gifts will go toward scholarship programs for minority students, not sweeping system change. 

Steve Marcus/ Reuters
Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings delivers a keynote address at the 2016 CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 6, 2016. Mr. Hastings has announced a $100 million foundation for education.

Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings became the latest member of the billionaire education club on Tuesday, when he announced the creation of a $100-million philanthropic foundation. 

"I’m so blessed to be able to do this," Mr. Hastings wrote in a Facebook post, thanking his company's employees and 57.4 million subscribers for "making this possible."

The first two gifts of the fund, which will be led by former New Schools for New Orleans Chief Strategy Officer Neerav Kingsland, will give $1.5 million to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. 

In the past decade, tech moguls from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg have proven eager to fix the country's underperforming schools, often with a "disruptive" mindset.

"West Coast philanthropy is marked by innovation, it's about disruption, it's about change," Emmett D. Carson told The New York Times in October. Dr. Carson serves as CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, through which Hastings is funding the "creatively named" Hastings Fund (Hastings's own description). Donors coming from Silicon Valley "bring this go-big or go-home willingness to fail, and see failure as a good outcome if you learned something," Carson added. 

Critics say that this gung-ho experimentalism is better suited to the boardroom than to the classroom, where a "willingness to fail" affects students, their families, and communities. Visionary donors' grand plans have often gone sour without support from the teachers and parents most impacted by sweeping change: Mark Zuckerberg's own $100-million investment in schools in Newark, N.J., for instance, has become something of a cautionary tale for investors. 

But the Hastings Fund may learn from earlier investors' growing history of trial, error, and success, including Mr. Hasting's own years in the education sphere: He led the push for more charter schools in California, where he was a member of the state's board of education from 2000 to 2004 (and named president in 2001).

Hastings has also supported a bevy of charter schools and appropriately "disruptive" approaches to learning, from Aspire Public Schools to the video-based Khan Academy and Rocketship Education, an elementary school network that uses so-called blended learning to deliver some daily lessons through computers, not certified teachers – meant to individualize learning and save teachers some time for the most struggling students, although the model has had mixed results

"Our aim is to partner with communities to significantly increase the number of students who have access to rich and holistic educational experiences," the Fund's website says, under the banner "All children deserve amazing schools." 

It's a sentiment that nearly everyone in education agrees with; the question is how to provide it. A particularly heated debate surrounds charter schools, which are managed privately but funded publicly. Advocates say their experimental approaches are not just beneficial, but vital in cities where district schools just aren't cutting it. Critics, on the other hand, say every dollar spent on charters takes a dollar away from traditional schools, and the often less-advantaged students attending them. 

But the Hastings Fund's initial gifts seem to sidestep that question by focusing on something more experts can get on board with: college scholarships for minority students. 

"My friend and ally Reed and I agree strongly that all students – despite race or economic background – deserve access to a high-quality education," United Negro College Fund president and CEO Dr. Michael L. Lomax said in a statement released Wednesday. "I'm proud to work with him to make this a reality for more students."

At UNCF, the funds will continue a 72-year tradition of supporting students at more than 1,000 institutions: 60,000 in total, according to its website. 

At the Hispanic Foundation, Hastings's gifts will help launch new programs designed to carry Latino students successfully through college and beyond, helping the Bay Area's Latino high school grads gain the degrees and hands-on experience they'll need to be hired in big-tech down the road.

The Latinos in Technology Initiative, still actively fundraising, plans to award 100 scholarships to its first annual batch of students in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) this summer, Hispanic Foundation President and CEO Ron Gonzales tells The Christian Science Monitor. Hastings joins investors like Tivo and and Intel, which will offer summer internships to students supported by the Foundation.

After deciding on their majors in their sophomore or junior year, college students who graduated from any of the Bay Area's high schools can apply for the scholarships, which award $10,000 per year for a two to three year period, as well as the opportunity for internships. The Foundation will select 50 men and 50 women each year.

Mr. Gonzales says the need for such programs became painfully clear once top tech firms disclosed data showing a "substantial gap" between the number of Latinos they employed and those living in the Bay Area as a whole, which is nearly one quarter Latino. That disparity impacts "the long-term health of the Latino community and the long-term health of Silicon Valley," says Gonzales, who was previously mayor of San Jose and an executive at Hewlett-Packard. 

"We believe that, in the future, the strength of Silicon Valley will be based on our ability to grow our own engineers from our own neighborhoods. We’d like to think this initiative is an on-the-ground type of approach, with a real, practical solution to a real problem," he said.

To make sure that local students get to college in the first place, the Foundation will also apply Hastings Fund money to college resource centers meant to educate parents and students. 

Taking specific, local criteria into account may help propel the programs, rather than top-down approaches that have characterized some previous philanthropic initiatives in K-12 education.

"It's very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts," Mark Zuckerberg, who calls Hastings a "mentor," wrote on Facebook this fall, reflecting on lessons from Newark's attempted overhaul. "We now better understand why it can take years to build the support to durably cement the changes needed to provide every student with a high quality education."

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