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A lot has changed since 2018, when Jeff Bezos announced that he and his then wife, MacKenzie Scott, were making a $2 billion pledge for early education and homeless families through the Bezos Day One Fund. The couple split up in 2019, and MacKenzie Scott has gone on to become a generous and high-profile philanthropist in her own right. The Amazon founder launched the Bezos Earth Fund to protect the environment and combat climate change. He also stepped down as CEO of Amazon, putting more focus on Blue Origin, and even taking a flight into space himself.

Back here on Earth, what’s been going on with Bezos’s funding for education since that 2018 pledge? Given his tremendous fortune and giving potential, it’s a question we’ve explored in the past, and one with huge potential implications.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get a handle on Bezos’s overall K-12 funding strategy, or how his giving works. Most education funders at his scale fill their websites with mission statements and descriptions of their strategies and long-term goals. Bezos Day One Fund’s website provides brief descriptions of Day One Families Fund (which provides grants to organizations that serve homeless families) and Day One Academies Fund, the nonprofit that oversees a growing network of Bezos Academy preschools. The Bezos Academy website provides abundant information about its preschools, but not about Bezos’ broader education goals.

When we reached out, Bezos’ communications team offered some specifics about the Bezos Academy preschools and a couple of other investments, but referred us back to his past statements to clarify his larger education goals. When it comes to his education giving strategy, Bezos doesn’t appear to be doing a lot of delegating, and his K-12 giving doesn’t seem to be nearly as developed as Bezos Earth Fund, by contrast. We can, however, point to a few priorities based on grants made to date.

Improving the odds

Bezos’s education funding efforts to date have focused primarily on early education through his Day One Academies Fund, a nonprofit that is “launching and operating a network of tuition-free, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” according to the website. In 2019, Bezos named Mike George to head the fund. George doesn’t have education experience; he worked at Amazon, where he held a variety of leadership positions, for close to 20 years.

Bezos Academy preschools follow the Montessori approach closely. According to the website, Montessori elements form the foundation of the curriculum, teachers are trained in the Montessori approach and classrooms use Montessori materials. But they are Montessori-inspired (versus straight up Montessori schools) because they do not adhere to all elements and requirements of the Montessori approach. The preschools are free for disadvantaged families; children experiencing homelessness and those in foster care receive admission preference. To support working families, the preschools operate all day and all year round.

Today, there are five Bezos Academy preschools in Washington state, and more schools there and in Texas and Florida are in the works. The organization works with local “host partners,” including school districts and municipal governments, when choosing its preschool sites. One of the preschools in Washington is located on the campus of a senior center, and Bezos Academy is in conversation with other senior facilities that may be potential partners in the future. The goal is to open hundreds of preschools around the country.

To his credit, the focus on very young children demonstrates Bezos’ understanding of the life-long benefits of quality early education. As Bezos said in a 2018 discussion at the Economics Club of Washington D.C., “We know for a fact that if a kid falls behind, it’s really, really hard to catch up. And if you can give somebody a leg up when they’re two, three or four years old, by the time they get to kindergarten or first grade, they’re much less likely to fall behind. It can still happen, but you’ve really improved their odds.”

Over the last several decades, abundant research has shown the value of quality early education, even as the U.S. is experiencing a child care crisis that was made worse by the pandemic. Families are finding the cost of early care increasingly prohibitive, while facilities face serious labor shortages. Even before the pandemic, close to half the country didn’t have enough early care facilities to meet the need, creating child care deserts. Post-pandemic, the problem is even worse.

Bezos Academy’s focus on low-income families is also important. Low-income children and children of color are less likely to have access to quality early ed and more likely to enter school at a learning disadvantage, and research shows that preschool can make a critical difference.

Bezos credits his mother and her work at the Bezos Family Foundation for opening his eyes to the importance of early education. “You know, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he told the Economics Club audience. “My mother has become, in running the Bezos Family Foundation, she has become an expert in early education.”

During the discussion at the Economics Club, where he spoke before an appreciative audience, Bezos reminisced about his own experience at a Montessori preschool, starting when he was two years old. “The Montessori school teacher complained to my mother that I was too task focused and that she couldn’t get me to switch tasks, so she would have to just pick up my chair and move me,” he said. “And by the way, I think that’s — if you ask the people who work with me, that’s still probably true today.”

Along with the growing network of preschools, Bezos has supported various other education-related initiatives over the years. In 2018, he contributed $33 million to a scholarship fund for DACA students, for example. And last December he donated $2.7 million to the D.C. Public Library Foundation, the largest gift the foundation has ever received. The funds will support Beyond the Book, a program that aims to boost reading skills for children in kindergarten through third grade. Even more recently, Bezos agreed to donate the royalties from his book, “Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos” to the 2022 New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University. The money will go for school supplies at New Orleans Public Schools.

Bezos’ next frontier?

It’s hard to question the potential value of Bezos’ education investments, but some observers question his motives. In an article for EdSurge, educator Dominik Dresel makes a compelling case for Bezos’s grand education ambitions. He predicts that Bezos will make bigger, more sweeping moves into the education sector, just as he has in grocery stores, media, cloud computing, home security and more. Dresel runs down several ways involvement in public education might benefit Bezos and Amazon by providing consumer data, loyalty and generally contributing to what one critic has called a vision to make Amazon “the underlying infrastructure that commerce runs on.” Speculative, for sure, but Bezos does play the long game.

Bezos himself may be saying the quiet part out loud when he talks about employing Amazon business practices at his preschools, as he has done repeatedly. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon.” he wrote in the 2018 tweet announcing his $2 billion investment. “Most important among those will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

Many early education advocates nevertheless welcome Bezos and his money into the underfunded space. Philanthropists, including K-12 funders, have been slow to recognize the need for increased investments in early education. While that has begun to change significantly in recent years, early education still gets a fraction of the funding that goes to K-12. Bezos, with his vast wealth, could have a major impact.

As always when discussing Bezos’ philanthropy, it’s a fact that there are many other ways he could make an impact on the well-being of children—including by tackling the structural inequality that permits one man’s wealth to top $186 billion (and to increase by more than $70 billion during the pandemic), while 38 million Americans experience hunger (food insecurity also rose during the pandemic). Four years ago, IP called on Jeff Bezos to tackle structural inequality, beginning at his own company, by becoming a leader in “high-road labor practices,” and encouraging other corporate leaders to do the same. We’re still waiting.