For dozens of educational administrators, it felt like winning the lottery without ever buying a ticket: out-of-the-blue offers of multimillion dollar donations from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott with no strings attached.
The money could be a difference maker for schools, which must weigh layers of restrictions and timelines for how local, state, federal, and private dollars can be spent. And the freedom for recipients to spend it without conditions challenges trends in education philanthropy, a field in which wealthy donors often use their gifts to steer policy and fields of research they personally value, carefully monitoring spending and results.
“It’s very unusual. It’s very radical,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who studies education philanthropy. “Her theory of change is very different: She thinks she will have more impact by letting people have the money and do what they think is best.”
The news of Scott’s gifts came to superintendents of 16 public school districts and leaders of 32 charter schools and networks through unexpected phone calls. They didn’t even have to apply for the money. They didn’t have to prove their need. They can use it however they see fit.
In interviews with local news stations, multiple district leaders who received donations said they had to double-check that they weren’t the target of prank calls when they first heard of the gifts.
The donations are part of the $2 billion Scott gave to 343 organizations in a variety of sectors in the last seven months, she wrote in a Nov. 14 blog post. Scott, who started a massive giving campaign after her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, did not specify how much each district or charter school received, instead listing hundreds of recipients without additional details.
But districts themselves have made their own announcements, giving a hint at the scale of the gifts. The Cleveland and Detroit districts, along with Fresno, Calif., and Jefferson County, Ky., received $20 million each. Chicago Public Schools received $25 million. Durham, N.C., schools received $18 million, and districts in Grand Prairie, Texas, and Escondido, Calif., each received $16 million.
And smaller districts were also included. The 4,200-student South Texas Independent School District, for example, received $8 million. The 1,500-student Cushing, Okla., district received $4.5 million.
In almost every case, the gifts are the largest private donations the school systems have ever received.
“This is sort of like Santa Claus,” said Helen Williams, the program director for education at the Cleveland Foundation, which is managing Scott’s donation to the Cleveland district. “The way the district has chosen to use it is going to be game-changing for kids and employees and staff. And they would never be able to use their operational money for what they are using this for.”
A $20 million donation may not seem like a lot when compared to the scale of the Cleveland district’s massive $1.5 billion annual budget, but the lack of restrictions means the district will be able to fund a menu of smaller projects that previously seemed out of reach, Williams said.
The Cleveland district, located in one of the country’s poorest cities, plans to use the gift to create the Get More Opportunities Fund, which will fund projects like college visits for students, upgrades to school facilities, and teacher proposals, through five years of $4 million awards.
At a Nov. 22 announcement of the fund, CEO Eric Gordon announced the first round of awards: an app that will provide instant replay at high school football games, augmented reality devices that will allow students at the Cleveland School of Science & Medicine to perform virtual procedures, and teacher training on social-emotional learning and other topics.
Among the most grateful people at the announcement were the district’s bus drivers, who celebrated plans to overhaul a dated break room with computers and comfortable seating so they can study and rest between shifts, said Williams, of the Cleveland Foundation. Such projects can provide a big morale boost, helping the district retain drivers at a time when school systems around the country struggle to hire enough of them, she said.
“It isn’t just the money,” Williams said. “It is the positive affirmation and really saying to the enterprise and the people in it, ‘We are valued. People see our value.’ I think we underestimate the importance of that.”
While some recipients were still determining how to spend the gifts at the time of the announcement, many had made plans. Jefferson County plans to launch an initiative called E3: Engagement, Environment, and Experiences, designed to combat funding inequality by upgrading”playgrounds, athletic fields, and orchestra rooms” at high-poverty schools. It will also fund staff appreciation days and parent-teacher association memberships on those sites.
“This will truly make our funding model based completely on equity,” Superintendent Marty Pollio told local news station WHAS.
Among other plans for the gifts:
The funding comes as school districts around the country rush to spend an unprecedented surge of $122 billion in federal COVID-19 recovery aid provided through the American Rescue Plan, facing logistical barriers and a tight timeline to do so.
The Cushing, Okla., district said it planned to use its gift from Scott to continue its recovery efforts after the federal spending deadline lapses, helping them to avoid a dreaded “fiscal cliff.”
Scott is known for being tight-lipped about her philanthropy, including how she decides where to direct her funds. Districts contacted by Education Week said they do not know why they were selected, and many did not return requests for comment.
Several of the school systems, including Cleveland, Chicago, Fresno, and Tacoma, Wash., are known for social-emotional learning programs and “whole child” supports that help blunt the effects of poverty by helping address issues like hunger, homelessness, a lack of transportation, or by covering the cost ofextracurricular and enrichment opportunities.
In previous rounds of giving, Scott has also donated to organizations with similar missions, like Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit that helps schools coordinate community programs and social services to support students from low-income families. This round also included some gifts to education-related programs, like teacher-residency projects in Kansas City, Nashville, and St. Louis.
Scott’s November blog post described her philosophy of giving by citing a poem called Dakota Homecoming by Native American writer Gwen Nell Westerman that describes a patronizing relationship between a Native community and the people who colonized it: “We know this is your homeland, they said. The admission price is five dollars, they said.”
“I needn’t ask those I care about what to say to them, or what to do for them,” Scott wrote after sharing the poem. “I can share what I have with them to stand behind them as they speak and act for themselves.”
That approach is a powerful shift, said Tompkins-Stange, the Michigan professor.
In recent years, philanthropists who made their fortunes in technology have been both praised and criticized for shaping public agendas and districts’ priorities through their giving.
In 2010, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to Newark, N.J., schools to support a list of reforms, including charter schools. The results were the subject of public scrutiny. More recently, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have funded research into how students learn, social-emotional learning, and education technology. (The Chan-Zuckerberg initiative provides support for Education Week).
Microsoft founder Bill Gates has also gathered buzz by changing course several times in his massive education philanthropy. The foundation has shifted focus from small high schools, to teacher evaluations and learning standards, to schools’ COVID-19 recovery efforts, and most recently to math education—often kicking up controversy along the way. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides a grant for operating support to Education Week, which retains sole editorial control over its journalism.)
“Especially philanthropists who are in tech … they want to give donations that have a direct and measurable impact and are catalytic in nature,” Tompkins-Stange said. Their aim, she said, is to carefully research the results of big donations through tailored uses and strict reporting requirements, identifying scalable solutions that can be adopted by other school systems and that could reshape debates over education policy.
With few limits on her funds and looser reporting requirements, Tompkins-Stange said Scott has traded the search for big solutions for the quest to drive results that are much more difficult to measure: the value of local agency.
After all, evaluating the outcomes of a specific teacher-evaluation initiative is much more clear-cut than sizing up the academic effects of a diffuse set of projects, like a new break room for bus drivers.
It will be up to future funders to determine if that trade-off is worth it, Tompkins-Stange said.
“The idea that she has such a broad scope and such a big scale—that she has so much money going out the door —it can’t help but create a giant ripple,” she said.