This weekend marks the release of a rather controversial documentary film, "Waiting for Superman" which chronicles the state of U.S. public education. I haven't seen it yet, so I will refrain from my opinion, but no less than Microsoft founder Bill Gates is talking it up. Which is really the point of this blog: Have you notice how much the high-tech industry is starting to flip over to education initiatives?
Today, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was a guest on Oprah to announce that he is flipping $100 million to the public school district in Newark. Apparently, that is about one-ninth of the district's entire budget. It kind of makes Dell's pledge to donate $10 million to education initiatives earlier this week pale in comparison; but heck, $10 million is nothing to sneeze at either. Through the Gates Foundation, the aforementioned Microsoft billionnaire has also donated plenty to the cause. The latest example is a $700,000 grant to Jefferson County in Alabama, which is actually funding education for the teachers, not the students. But its funding commitments over the past decade surpass Zuckerberg's pledge. Intel has been no slouch, either. It regularly runs high-profile science and innovation competitions. This web site actually provides an ongoing tally of which businesses are giving what to education.
With technology such a big part of our lives now -- and becoming bigger -- the entire tech industry has a responsibility to step up programs like this. The simple fact is that the public system can no longer do it alone, especially with the beating that the real estate market has taken over the past four years. We need to invest much more quickly than the local bureaucracy of local school districts can possibly support.
The challenge, of course, is whether or not these donations come with strings attached. Let's PLEASE make sure that the administrators aren't the only ones at the table and that this precious funding doesn't fund things like mathematics and science at the expense of the arts. In my mind, that's where the United States still leads: we still value creativity. At least sometimes.
Lots of people have reported rather cynically about Mr. Zuckerberg's donation, saying that it is timed to reflect negative publicity his company has received over a new movie about Facebook, "The Social Network," AND over its decision to build its next data center in a location where it will be powered chiefly by coal-generated electricity. But I'll just gently point out that Mr. Gates wasn't exactly thinking about philanthropy in his 20s. At least publicly. Good for you, Mark.