Education Reform

How Laurene Powell Jobs Is Spending Her Billions

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Becky Peterson writes in Business Insider about the philanthropic ventures of Apple founder Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. While Powell is apparently trying to brand the Emerson Collective as a progressive foundation, its education ideas are firmly rooted in the failed ideas of the NCLB-Race to the Top paradigm. We learn in the article that Ms. Jobs relies on Arne Duncan and his former aide Russlyn Ali for her education advice.

The Emerson Collective’s big idea was the XQ Project, which awarded $10 million to ten schools to reinvent the high school. in addition to the seed money of $100 million, Emerson spent another $200 million on XQ, part of which was a mega program on all three networks to declare the failure of the traditional high school and the debut of the XQ Project.

Unfortunately for Chalkbeat, it had the temerity to report honestly about the failures of the XQ Project. The Emerson Collective was a major donor to Chalkbeat. And then the funding stoppped.

For the first few years, Chalkbeat and Laurene Powell Jobs looked like the perfect match. 

The billionaire philanthropist and widow of Steve Jobs was known for her interest in education and school reform, and the Chalkbeat nonprofit newsroom had a compelling mission to report deeply on education policy and practice.

So in 2015, Emerson Collective, Powell Jobs’ personal office, issued a two-year grant to Chalkbeat. It was the first in a total of $1.6 million in checks written to the publication and one of the earliest media grants from Powell Jobs as she steadily transformed Emerson Collective from a small social-change organization into one of the most well-funded and ambitious philanthropy and investment firms in the country.

Chalkbeat might have remained just another example of Powell Jobs’ incalculable generosity— one of thousands — if it weren’t for some of its coverage. 

In May, Emerson Collective stopped funding the publication altogether. The decision, a former employee told Insider, was at least in part a response to Chalkbeat’s critical coverage of an education organization that is one of Emerson Collective’s marquee projects. 

(Emerson Collective denies the characterization.)

It was a surprising display of institutional pettiness at the mission-driven Emerson Collective, and it did not go unnoticed among the staff, most of whom had signed on in large part because of its founder’s “sincere connection” to a variety of progressive causes

Ali first joined Emerson Collective to lead its education investments in 2012; then in 2015 she and Powell Jobs cofounded XQ Institute, an independent nonprofit backed by Emerson Collective. 

“I think we share a common belief that this is among the most, if not the most, important civil-rights and social-justice issues of our generation,” Ali said of Powell Jobs. “Education was the path out for both of us.”

Behind XQ is a controversial thesis that technology will fundamentally transform the future of work and require a brand-new approach to education. The US education system, Ali wrote in a 2019 essay in The Atlantic, is “faltering.” The best way out, Ali argues, is to “rethink and reinvigorate” the way schools teach.

To address this, Ali and Powell Jobs launched XQ: The Super School Project, and issued $10 million grants to 10 winners of a competition to rethink American high schools in 2016. They followed up a year later with an hourlong star-studded network TV special that included a live performance by Kelly Clarkson, a school-bus sing-along with Tom Hanks and James Corden, and a key question: “What if schools unlocked the power of technology to transform education?” 

All told, Emerson Collective has put about $300 million toward XQ Institute, making it one of its most well-funded projects, according to people familiar with its finances. 

As might be expected with that amount of spending, the effort has drawn some scrutiny. 

In the fall of 2019, Chalkbeat reported that XQ had occasionally leaned on wrong or misleading data to support its thesis in promotional messages. Another Chalkbeat article asked a more pointed question: three years after XQ first issued its grants, “is it working?”

Later that year, Emerson Collective decided to wind down its support for Chalkbeat and give the publication a final $200,000 “exit” grant. 

Ali had indicated in conversation that Chalkbeat’s negative coverage would no longer be a problem once its grant ran out, a former employee said. And according to an email from 2021 viewed by Insider, Ali considered Chalkbeat’s critical coverage to be too opinionated….

Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green told Insider in a statement: “I’m a strong believer that philanthropically supported journalism can and must be rigorously independent. Emerson Collective made a big bet on Chalkbeat’s model early on, and during the many years they supported our education reporting, they were a generous donor. In addition to financial resources, Emerson provided us with fundraising training that enabled us to mobilize a strong and stable slate of supporters who make our fearless independent reporting possible.”

In August 2021, the question about Emerson’s coverage of education resurfaced. For years, Ali had been pushing to fund a different education website called The 74, which was more aligned with Ali and Powell Jobs’ politics. 

The media team wouldn’t fund it after deeming the website too political, so Ali asked Powell Jobs’ second-in-command, Stacey Rubin, to fund it using money earmarked for political organizations, according to an email viewed by Insider. 

So far, the funding hasn’t happened.

Ms. Jobs and Russlyn Ali preferred to support the pro-privatization website “The 74,” not independent journalism. “The 74” was founded by Campbell Brown, who is anti-public school and anti-union, a close friend of Betsy DeVos.

Good for Chalkbeat and Elizabeth Green!

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