Elon Musk Donated $20M to Texas Schools Near SpaceX. How Are Districts Spending It?

Staff Writer

Students and staff in Point Isabel Independent School District regularly run outside to watch rockets launch from Elon Musk’s SpaceX site. They are close enough to feel it, according to the district’s superintendent.

Now, as a result of a donation from the billionaire CEO, those students will have access to specialized classwork starting in elementary school that district officials believe will seed their interest in science-focused careers.

“We can see the rockets that go up every single time,” Superintendent Theresa Capistran said. “For us to then bring that relevance into the classroom via our curriculum is an amazing experience.”

Musk announced in a March 30 tweet that he would donate $20 million to the school districts in Cameron County, Texas. There are 11 districts in the county, which is located four hours south of San Antonio along the Mexican border.

While the space and tech entrepreneur’s business has invested in the county, the county has also invested substantially in Musk. In 2014, county commissioners granted SpaceX a 10-year waiver of county taxes. At the time, the company and county estimated that SpaceX was making an $85 million investment that would bring 300 new jobs to the Brownsville area.

Musk, who has tweeted about his ambition to create a “city of Starbase, Texas,” also promised $10 million to the city of Brownsville for “downtown revitalization.”

School systems in the county received the first installment last month, distributed to by the Musk Foundation based on the number of students enrolled in each. Point Isabel, a small district with 2,000 students, is slated to receive $112,000 — a boost to its total annual budget of $44 million.

Welding, Engineering, Cybersecurity

Capistran said the Musk Foundation offered some guidance for how to spend the money, but the decision was left up to the district. Administrators ran a needs assessment, looking at how their classes and activities aligned with job openings at SpaceX.

They chose to purchase new engineering, welding, construction and cybersecurity curricular materials, which Capistran said will be used from elementary to high school.

Twenty miles away, Brownsville Independent School District is expected to receive millions for its 40,000 students. Administrators plan to expand several career and technical education programs, Superintendent René Gutiérrez said in a statement. The Musk Foundation toured the school’s programs earlier this month.

There is no clear timeline for districts to receive the rest of the donation, but administrators said they will keep foundation officials updated on how they’re using the money from the gift.

Musk has donated to schools before, and lists supporting science and engineering education as one of five focus areas listed on the Musk Foundation’s bare-bones website.

In 2018 he donated more than $800,000 to Flint Community Schools to improve technology and replace water filters following the area’s water crisis. He also launched an experimental private school on the SpaceX campus in 2014, although Forbes reported it stopped operating in 2020.

He joins other technology and business titans who have made financial contributions to K-12 education. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has a long history of putting money into a variety of education causes, most notably through his foundation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $100 million aimed at improving public schools in Newark, N.J. The couple also founded a limited liability corporation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, that makes philanthropic gifts, as well as investments in a number of areas, including education companies. (Education Week receives support from both the Gates foundation and CZI.)

In addition, last year Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched the first of a network of preschools focused on underserved families, in Washington state.

Photo: Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition in Washington on March 9, 2020. (AP/Susan Walsh)

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