Education Reform Philanthropy Has Changed Radically Over the Past Decade

With the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit kicking off this evening, I thought I'd do an overview of the state of K-12 education philanthropy.

The NewSchools Venture Fund is one of the founding institutions of "venture philanthropy," a school of charitable giving that borrows its ethos from the world of venture capital. Venture philanthropists seek out non-profits that pursue social change while embracing data-driven corporate accountability standards. These donors often seek to bring promising local reforms "to scale" as quickly as possible, and many explicitly look for "innovative" programs–reform models that prioritize new technologies or new management and governance structures. Some examples: Online learning, national charter school networks, and advocacy on behalf of mayoral control of school districts. 

For a helpful synthesis of the entire venture philanthropy ideology, read the Gates Foundation's "Guiding Principles." An excerpt: "We identify a specific point of intervention and apply our efforts against a theory of change. We take risks, make big bets, and move with urgency. We are in it for the long haul."

All of this is relatively new. Let's look at a chart created by Sarah Reckhow, an up-and-coming political scientist–and former Baltimore public school teacher–who researches the role of foundations in shaping education policy. Reckhow combed through tax documents and discovered that back in 2000, when NewSchools was just 2-years old, the "New Big Three" education foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton) donated about the same amount to American schools as the "Old Big Three" (Ford, Carnegie, and Annenberg). Just five years later, the New Big Three were spending almost four times as much as the Old Big Three.

Screen shot 2011-05-17 at 5.18.11 PM

chart courtesy Sarah Reckhow

Why do we care? Well, the priorities of the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations–charter schools, mayoral control, and teacher evaluation and pay tied to student test scores–not only match up with one another, but stand in contrast to some of the priorities of the older funders. Ford, for example, prioritizes school-funding equity and neighborhood-school partnerships, alongside accountability. Annenberg funds arts and civics education. Carnegie, like the newer donors, focuses on teaching.

Often working in tandem, the New Big Three exercise an enormous amount of sway over national education policy-making. In a typical year (one without a stimulus bill), the federal Department of Education has just about $20 million in discretionary funds to play with outside of its big, pre-defined funding streams, such as Title I and IDEA. But in 2009, the last year for which data is available, the Gates Foundation gave away over $373 million to American education, the Walton Foundation donated approximately $134.1 million to school reform efforts, and the Broad Foundation about $39.1 million

Reckhow calls the results philanthropic "convergence." Her research shows that a handful of popular non-profits ate up 35 percent of all foundation dollars to public education in 2005. NewSchools is one of these groups; others include Teach for America, KIPP, New Visions for Public Schools, and Pacific Charter School Development.

There was convergence in education philanthropy in 2000, too, but the beneficiaries of the phenomenon back then were a far different group, including Harvard University, Columbia University Teachers' College, and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. 

In American education philanthropy, a lot has changed over the last decade. So it's worth thinking about how the dispersal of all these billions of dollars shapes our political and cultural debate about education reform. 

If you made it this far, I owe you a drink. And a Bay Area-themed song.


reporting for this blog post made possible by the "Private Money, Public Schools" workshop at the Columbia Journalism School

2 thoughts on “Education Reform Philanthropy Has Changed Radically Over the Past Decade

  1. David B. Cohen

    Thanks for pulling together this information – good to know! I also didn’t know this event was going down so close to home for me (about 20 miles away). So… about that drink…


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