In 2018, Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world, announced that he would create a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools. The move met surprise of certain Montessori educators and quite a few skepticism from many actors in the field of early childhood education. Bezos said he was inspired by his childhood experience in a Montessori preschool in New Mexico to invest in high-quality preschool education.
Five years later, Bezos Academy is here. And it expands.
The network now has 16 preschools in Washington, Texas and Florida, with the goal of reaching nearly 20 by the end of the year.
Of course, that’s not enough to make up for the national shortage of affordable programs that provide high-quality care and education for young children. Half of Americans live in a “childcare desert,” or a census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that has no or very few licensed care providers, according to Center for American Progress estimates. According a 2022 report from Child Care Aware of Americaa national membership association working to improve child care and the early years profession.
Programs that remain open often cannot serve all interested families, in part because of the difficulties hire and retain enough workers. Additionally, many child care providers are struggling financially. due to high inflation. These trends have led experts to say that the early education system is still in dire straits and it will take more than a billionaire to fix it.
“We’re not going to solve our shortage of childcare and preschool education by depending on very wealthy people doing schools,” says Aaron Loewenberg, senior policy analyst for education at the think tank left New America. “Early signs are good at Bezos Academy, but we need to have a better long-term strategy as a nation to provide access to high-quality childcare and pre-K, and great part of that has to be more federal. funding for these types of programs.
Yet some observers also believe that the Bezos Academy is a promising model in the few regions where it operates so far, and that early results there have been encouraging.
How Bezos Academy Preschools Work
Bezos Academy preschools are free for children ages 3-5 and open to families who earn less than 400% of the federal poverty level. That’s just over $92,000 a year for a family of three, according to Bezos Academy’s eligibility guidelines for this school year. They are open all year round and generally from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. They provide children with three meals a day, plus snacks.
Preschools are located in other institutions, such as elementary schools and community colleges, which provide space for academies free of charge. The partnership can benefit foster organizations by creating affordable childcare options for the people they serve. Rob DeHaas, vice provost of the School of Education at Dallas College, says that’s the case for the college, which hosts a Bezos Academy site.
“Lack of access to child care is one of those barriers that our employees, our students, and especially those communities in the southern part of Dallas County have encountered,” he says. “We really think this is an opportunity.”
Nursery schools are inspired by the Montessori education program, founded in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. The emphasis is usually on allowing students to learn through experience rather than direct instruction and letting students choose their activities. Montessori is often associated with wealthy families in private schools, but there are programs for low-income children.
“It gives a good structure. It’s a program that encourages a child to use their language, to use their words, to look at processes,” says Chris Duggan, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “It’s a highly respected program.”
Bezos schools stand out when it comes to compensation. The national median for preschool teachers is just over $30,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hourly, this equals less than $15. And educators and carers who work with younger children earn even lessabout $13 an hour.
Jeff Bezos’ main business, Amazon, has drawn criticism from labor advocates for poor working conditions for delivery drivers and warehouse staff. Some have accused the company of being anti-union.
But his chain of preschools offers pay packages that surprised experts. For an assistant teacher at Bezos Academy in Washington State, for example, the low end of the salary scale is around $50,000, with 10 days of paid vacation and seven days of paid sick leave, plus medical insurance.
“Often early educators don’t have access to things like retirement or even health insurance,” says Loewenberg, of New America — meaning the benefits for educators at Bezos Academy are remarkable.
It is unclear how much money preschools have access to. Bezos’ commitment for 2018 committed 2 billion dollars in the school effort as well as other work to help homeless families, but the nonprofit that backs the programs declined to say how much of the philanthropic support goes to early childhood work.
“There is a lot of need”
Many families make too much money to qualify for federally subsidized child care programs, but still struggle to find an affordable option for the kids. If Bezos Academy preschools can effectively target these children, the model could have a positive effect on the system.
There is evidence that this type of targeting may not work everywhere.
In Washington state, for example, home to eight Bezos Academy preschools, the model has real potential to connect access to child care and early education for families who are not eligible for publicly funded programs and cannot afford other high quality options. , said Joel Ryan. Ryan is the executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP, the state’s Early Childhood Education and Support Program. But most Head Start and ECEAP principals, Ryan, said they felt Bezos Academy preschools were competing with them for low-income students instead of targeting those middle-income families.
Competition for low-income students who have other options could leave more middle-income families without services and lead to less funding at some Head Start and ECEAP centers, which are under-enrolled and have room for more of students. Additionally, while families attending private Bezos Academy preschools will still receive an education for their children, they will not be part of the public systems that offer local and social services to parents and families. These can take the form of help with employment, housing and education.
“The Bezos Academy is welcome, they’re a big player. There’s a lot of need and I think they can absolutely fill a critical gap,” Ryan says. “But the majority of people who answered my questions about it said that Bezos operates on an island. They are not particularly collaborative.
Ryan says those who work for the Head Start and ECEAP programs are interested in partnering with Bezos Academy preschools to better serve families and target enrollment.
This is already the case in some regions. Michelle Rahl-Lewis, director of early learning for the Tacoma School District in Washington state, said the two private kindergartens integrated into elementary schools in the system, serving about 100 children, work closely with the district.
“It’s going really well,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of great communications about how best to serve the most families within our community and to make sure we catch the families that are at that cliff where they’re not quite qualified for Head Start. or ECEAP, which we offer, but do not earn enough money for a private Montessori placement.
Michael Abello, director of education at Bezos Academy, says the network is paying close attention to where to place new preschools, using data to identify areas where there aren’t enough places to serve the children of the community.
“If we go into a community and have a negative effect on another program, that goes against our mission,” he says. “We’ve actually had a very positive reception from families and communities and, frankly, other early learning providers we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with on this intake model.”
One of the goals is to allow families to identify which curriculum is right for them and allow them to consider Montessori as an option, Abello says.
“A lot of our work will depend on partnering, learning, and learning with these leaders in the field of early learning,” he says.
The Bezos Academy preschools aim to enroll 1,000 children by the end of the year, a relatively small figure considering the number of 4 million 4-year-olds in the country alone.
But Bezos Academy is growing much more modestly than Bezos’ core business: Amazon.
This means that other entities have a huge role to play when it comes to meeting the country’s early childhood education needs – if policy makers can agree that is a priority. The Build Back Better plan proposed by President Joe Biden included significant investments in early childhood education, but was not adopted. (The president did sign a decree in April asking federal agencies to find ways to make child care more affordable and accessible.) Here we go to the statesincluding California, Colorado and New Mexico, to fill the void, Loewenberg says.
“The problem of solving the child care crisis is multi-faceted,” says DeHaas of Dallas College. “It takes a multidimensional approach.”