The Case for Billionaire Philanthropy (in Education Reform)

Like other nonprofit sectors, the education reform space is tearing itself apart over whether it should take money from billionaires. There are all sorts of questions mixed up here, including which billionaires, how they earned their money, and how long ago it was, not to mention existential questions about how we feel about whether there should be any billionaires at all.

This essay by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex captures my thoughts on the matter. For education reform in particular, this is the point that I find myself coming back to:

Two of the billionaires whose philanthropy I most respect, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, have done a lot of work on the criminal justice reform. The organizations they fund determined that many innocent people are languishing in jail for months because they don’t have enough money to pay bail; others are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have to get out of jail in time to get to work or care for their children, even if it gives them a criminal record. They funded a short-term effort to help these people afford bail, and a long-term effort to reform the bail system. One of the charities they donate to, The Bronx Freedom Fund, found that 92% of suspects without bail assistance will plead guilty and get a criminal record. But if given enough bail assistance to make it to trial, over half would have all charges dropped. This is exactly the kind of fighting-mass-incarceration and stopping-the-cycle-of-poverty work everyone says we need, and it works really well. I have donated to this charity myself, but obviously I can only give a tiny fraction of what Moskovitz and Tuna manage.

If Moskovitz and Tuna’s money instead flowed to the government, would it accomplish the same goal in some kind of more democratic, more publically-guided way? No. It would go to locking these people up, paying for more prosecutors to trick them into pleading guilty, more prison guards to abuse and harass them. The government already spends $100 billion – seven times Tuna and Moskovitz’s combined fortunes – on maintaining the carceral state each year. This utterly dwarfs any trickle of money it spends on undoing the harms of the carceral state, even supposing such a trickle exists. Kicking Tuna and Moskovitz out of the picture isn’t going to cause bail reform to happen in some civically-responsible manner. It’s just going to ensure that all the money goes to making the problem worse, instead of the overwhelming majority going to making the problem worse but a tiny amount also going to making it better.

In full disclosure, the Bellwether team’s work to improve America’s educational system would not be possible without the investments of billionaires and the foundations they created. So I’m biased, but if we didn’t have philanthropy in education, I think we’d just get more of the same. If you’re dissatisfied with the results of our current education system, if you think it can do better, if you think our educational system should be more equitable or more efficient, or both, philanthropy can help provide the external resources for change.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman