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What Would a Mark Zuckerberg Presidential Run Mean for Education?


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently hanging around Iowa, aka the first state to vote in a presidential caucus come election season. That, of course, is fueling speculation that he'll make a run for the White House in 2020, possibly as a Democrat.

Yes, we know. Zuckerberg—not anyone's idea of a traditional politician—is a longshot. And yes, 2020 is a long way away and a lot can happen before then. Plus, Zuckerberg has said that he's not running for office, including on Facebook. Zuckerberg also made a stop in nearby Nebraska, a state that isn't considered a pivotal in presidential politics. He's said he wants to meet people in every state.

But indulge us, because this is interesting to think about: Even a speculative Zuckerberg run could have implications for education policy. That's because Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have plans to pour billions of dollars into K-12 education. Personalized learning—which often uses technology to help customize lessons for kids of different ability levels—has been a huge focus for their "Chan Zuckerberg initiative."

To run the initiative, they've hired Jim Shelton, who served as deputy secretary of education during the Obama administration and was a driving force behind the Investing in Innovation fund. 

And of course, Zuckerberg poured $100 million into revamping Newark's public schools. The money was used to dramatically expand charter schools, get rid of teachers with poor evaluations, and tie other educators performance reviews to test scores. The results were decidedly mixed. Zuckerberg and Chan also recently started a private school for low-income children that puts a premium on health care services

So what kind of an impact would having Zuckerberg in the field—or even the rumored field—have on the debate over education policy? First off, and maybe most importantly, it might bring some focus to the issue, which barely registered in the last couple presidential campaigns.

It's easy to imagine that some parents and teachers would "like" Zuckerberg's willingness to invest in schools. It's also easy to imagine that some educators—possibly including active members of both teachers' union—may see Zuckerberg as part and parcel of a brand of "corporate reformers" that they worry are interfering with education policy. Both of those issues could be important in a Democratic primary, assuming, of course that Zuckerberg runs as a Democrat.

And it could be pretty interesting to see Zuckerberg and President Donald Trump go toe-to-toe on education policy. Zuckerberg's hiring of Shelton—and the policies he helped finance in Newark—suggests his take on K-12 policy could be pretty similar to President Barack Obama's, which relied a lot on using competitive grants to entice districts to embrace favored policies.

Trump, on the other hand, has mostly talked about local control, school choice, and slimming down the education department. So we may in for a pretty interesting debate ... three and a half years from now. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at his company's annual F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., in February.
--Noah Berger/AP-File

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