The Bezos Family Foundation's donation amounts to a nearly 13 percent boost in the College of Education's total donations and offers a lasting opportunity to influence the school's research and programs in early education.

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Only a week after Jeff Bezos pledged to pour part of his personal wealth into creating a network of preschools for low-income families, his parents’ philanthropic foundation announced a $3 million gift to the University of Washington to shape its work in early education.

The nonprofit Bezos Family Foundation, headed by Jackie and Mike Bezos, historically has focused on education since its incorporation in 2000. It also partnered with the UW about a decade ago to create an endowed chair for early childhood learning within the College of Arts & Sciences.

But the $3 million donation, which amounts to a nearly 13 percent boost in the College of Education’s total endowment, offers the Bezos family a lasting opportunity to influence the research and programs supported within the college.

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“Proportionally, this is a really big gift,” said Rick Hess, an education scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. Hess has studied the impact of philanthropy in K-12 schools.

“If you can bring 10 percent of the education school’s (total) endowment with this initial gift and you know the foundation has lots of additional support that it may or may not choose to give…it’s only human to think, ‘How do we convince them to write more and bigger checks?’” Hess said.

The foundation did not make anyone available for an interview about its donation.

According to an endowment agreement between the foundation and UW, a third of the annual distribution from the $3 million investment will pay a portion of the salary of a new professorship in early learning. The remaining two-thirds will be spent at that professor’s discretion to offer financial aid to doctoral students and support “promising” early learning initiatives.

Gail Joseph, an associate professor with the College of Education, will be the first faculty member to hold the endowed professorship.

“Gail Joseph is an incredible innovator in the early childhood field, working to infuse new research and findings on high-quality teaching into everyday practice,” foundation President Jackie Bezos said in a news release.

“She shares our deep commitment to helping all children and families, especially those furthest from opportunity, have access to supportive learning environments that ensure a strong start in life.”

Gail Joseph, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education. (UW College of Education)
Gail Joseph, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education. (UW College of Education)

Since 2008, Joseph has lead the staff at Cultivate Learning, a statewide organization that has trained more than 4,000 early learning teachers and coaches and evaluates preschool programs across Washington. Joseph also helped overhaul curriculum used in the national Head Start early education program and has a long resume of published research on the topic.

Joseph said she has not received money from the Bezos family before, but met Jackie Bezos several years ago and was impressed with her vision to create what she described as “an early learning nation.”

“That forever has resonated with me, so of course it’s such an honor to have a professorship with their family name,” Joseph said.

“Beyond the professorship, the endowment…is just a tremendous gift that allows us to do some pilot innovation work with projects that might not be ready for a huge gift or federal grant but (are) worth exploring to see if they work,” she added.

Last week, the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos announced plans to donate $2 billion — about 1.2 percent of his current wealth — to fund existing nonprofits working with homeless families and to create a network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities.

Though details of the Amazon founder’s commitment remain unclear, his unprecedented push in early education seemingly would be separate from the priorities set by the Bezos Family Foundation.

As for the UW endowment, Faith Boninger, a researcher at the University of Colorado who writes about private companies doing business with schools, encouraged the foundation and college to create barriers to curb the potential for influence from the Bezos family on Joseph and her work.

“In general, if somebody funds you, you might be sympathetic to their concerns,” Boninger said. “If their intentions are completely honorable…they need to be careful to put firewalls in place so that they can prevent that natural influence from happening.”

For her part, Joseph said she already has a list of potential research and projects that she wants to consider funding with the new endowment. She has considered partnering with the city of Seattle, for example, to train high-school students of color to become future preschool teachers.

The endowment also will help recruit doctoral students who may find Seattle too unaffordable.

“Coming here as a graduate student, where you won’t make a large salary, that’s an issue,” Joseph said. “Maybe you’ve heard: Seattle’s becoming increasing expensive.”