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Zuckerberg’s donation of $100 millio to New Jersey schools is being hailed as a noble act. And so it is…in some ways.

The budget could certainly use the money; New Jersey is dead broke, and Governor Christie aims his austerity measures directly at schools—or even better, when he can find a way to do it, at the teachers therein. Whether the Newark schools for which the money is slated will improve with better funding is open to question. Although among the worst in the nation, social decay seems more the root of their problems than a lack of money. New Jersey schools spend about twice the national average per student; even allowing for regional differences in cost of living and a small preference for spending state funds on wealthy counties, Newark schools aren’t hurting for cash in the way many of our failing schools are. A large donation could prevent a bad situation from disintegrating completely under budgetary assault, however.

Nevertheless, educators, myself included, are alarmed at the news of a $100 million donation to education. Why?

In short, they fear a dependency on private donation. Governor Christie is not merely thanking Zuckerberg for his generosity; he has embraced private donation as a model for our educational future, which comes with some frightening implications:

First, private donation is uncertain. A gift may be withdrawn at any time. A billionaire offering a few million this year to public schools can’t be relied upon to donate every year thereafter—but we all know that politicians who set the budgets will come to expect such donations if they become regular, and will “balance the budget” on expectations of large, private gifts that may never materialize, much as we’ve “balanced the budget” in the past on expectations of business booms that failed to materialize in the wake of tax cuts. And when donations fail to materialize, schools could (will) be crippled.

Second, he who pays the piper calls the tune. An education budget dependent on private donation will be unable to stand (for very long) against any agenda the donor may bring. Zuckerberg may have no agenda, but if Christie’s vision of the future is realized, it won’t take long for organizations with agenda to inject themselves into the process, anything from Coke asking for a re-installation of vending machines to publishers angling for book contracts to megachurches supporting only schools that teach creationism. Public education is supposed to prepare citizens to operate in a democracy, and is supposed to be politically neutral. It cannot remain so once schools depend on private donation.

Third, private donation is not subject to oversight to ensure the money is well spent. Public funds are open to public examination, and if millions disappear down a rabbit hole, citizen watchdog groups can find out. The same is not true of private donations. The donor may demand an accounting, or he may not—Zuckerberg, with his attitude that the money should go wherever the state wishes to put it, at least admits he’s no expert in education, but also clearly does not intend to make sure the money is accounted for—and even if he did, he may not have the legal apparatus to find out.

Fourth, and most important, the lack of public accountability has an even darker side. Elaborate laws exist to ensure that everyone gets a decent education, and that funds are shared equitably. Often these laws fail, either from lack of enforcement or from poor design in the first place—e.g., setting budgets by municipal taxes, so rich neighborhoods get good schools and poor neighborhoods get broken schools. But fixing these laws lies in the direction of more equal distribution and more careful oversight, not less, and private donors are free to place whatever stipulations they like on their gifts. They’re gifts, and the donor is free to withdraw at any time for any reason, including spending the money where it’s needed rather than where he prefers. On civics, for example, rather than job training. Or on general math courses rather than gifted programs. Or on students who aren’t the right kind. You know who I’m talking about, even though you couldn’t prove it in court, which is exactly the situation donation-dependent schools would be in. Education is a public good, and must remain a public institution; when it becomes a private institution, it becomes a private asset.

Zuckerberg’s generosity is laudable. His methods do much to undermine the value of his gift. The funds may fix an immediate, local problem, but they lay the groundwork for vast corruption to come, and the more successfully the donation fixes the immediate problem, the greater the threat it presents to education as a whole.

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