When billionaires give money to charity, we’re inclined to assume that they are doing a good thing and deserve praise. But too often, their largesse is not charitable at all. Rather than relieving suffering and improving the human condition, billionaire giving often is designed to steer society and public policy toward a fantasy world they indulge that would actually increase suffering and worsen the human condition.
A recent case in point: MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, recently gave $133 million to Communities in Schools, an organization that believes schools should do more than educate. It wants schools to become one-stop megastores for government-provided social and health services. An army of counselors, therapists, dentists, nurses, financial planners and social workers would be marshaled at your neighborhood school to win the war on poverty.
CIS does not simply believe that the government should provide families with all of these services, but, importantly, that these services should be provided in schools. Their theory is that unless schools address a host of social ills first, they cannot make progress in their traditional educational responsibilities.
A rigorous study commissioned by CIS’ backers showed that this theory is false. In that study, researchers randomly assigned 1,501 students to receive services case-managed by CIS or not at 24 schools. That is, by chance 751 students received the broad range of services that CIS provides, while another 750 students were assigned by lottery not to receive those services.
On average, the two groups of students should be identical when they started, so any differences in their outcomes would reveal the effects of CIS services. Researchers examined the results after two years and found: “CIS case management did not have an effect on students’ traditional school outcomes. Students in the case-managed and non-case-managed groups had similar rates of chronic absenteeism, attendance, core course failure, and credit accumulation, and similar course marks.” Even worse, students who received CIS services were significantly more likely to be suspended from school for misbehavior.
No one should have been surprised by the finding that adding a host of services to schools is educationally counter-productive. It is hard enough for schools to focus on and succeed at their traditional responsibilities. Expanding their role to fix a variety of social ills distracts them from their core mission and dilutes their limited administrative talent.
In addition, this significant expansion in the responsibilities of schools fundamentally alters their relationship to families. Instead of parents seeking professional services to help their children, the school does it for them automatically, cutting parents out of the loop. In doing so, schools increasingly view the parents as the cause of problems that they are fixing with their own expanded staff. Parents also notice how they are displaced and sometimes demonized and become less engaged in school.
But Ms. Scott is indifferent to the negative educational outcomes for CIS. Perhaps she views the displacement of families by expanding the responsibilities of schools as a feature, not a bug. Elite contempt for ordinary families and their values has become painfully clear in recent years. And one way to bypass what they perceive to be the problem — backward parents — is to have schools increasingly assume the role of raising children. This means having schools do everything from taking them to the dentist to providing them with therapy to counseling them toward elite-favored values.
By trying to turn your neighborhood school into a socialist paradise of comprehensive government services, Ms. Scott is seeking to do more than change academic outcomes. She is encouraging the state to raise your children in the way she prefers. Her gift is not benign and should not be praised as charity.
• Jay P. Greene is a senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.