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From Walton to Zuckerberg: How Education Philanthropy Has Changed

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Netflix CEO and prominent charter school-supporter Reed Hastings announced this week that he plans to create a $100 million philanthropic fund devoted to education.

It's the latest in a string of announcements and reports that have made for a busy last few months in the realm of education philanthropy.

A $490 million plan by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to dramatically expand the number of charter schools in Los Angeles was leaked to the LA Times in September.

Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife, Priscilla Chan, revealed at the beginning of December that they plan to give away 99 percent of their company's shares (currently valued at $45 billion) to improve education, among other initiatives. Zuckerberg and Chan have made a handful of other investments in education, including perhaps mostly notoriously, $100 million to retool struggling Newark, N.J., public schools.

The couple also announced plans in October to open a tuition-free private school in East Palo Alto, Calif., for low-income students, which will also include health-care services for the children and their families. 

Last but certainly not least, the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the decedents of Walmart founder Sam Walton, pledged last week to spend $1 billion over the next five years on expanding school choice, in particular, charter schools.

That's roughly equal to what the foundation has spent on education over the past 20 years.

While writing about the Walton Foundation announcement for Education Week, I phoned up Jeffrey R. Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a co-editor of the book The New Education Philanthropy, to talk about the role of philanthropy in education.

He told me the Walton Family Foundation has helped drive significant shifts in how heavyweight donors invest in education. Below are excerpts from our conversation that have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What has been the role of philanthropic organizations or foundations in education and has it changed over time?

A. Foundations have been involved in education for a long time including more liberal foundations like Ford. But there have been some real changes over the last ten years or so in the education philanthropy movement.

One is the amount of money that some of the foundations are putting into play. But I think just as important are a couple of other things. One is the extent to which they are strategically trying to leverage their investment in ways that would maximize impact.

I think the traditional model that a lot of people have, that I think was accurate for much of the history of philanthropy and social policy in the United States, was that the role of the foundations was to fund demonstration projects and service delivery, and they were often willing to support these movements for a long-term basis, in order to get services to people but also to show, just to demonstrate, that certain ideas would work.

The more strategic philanthropy that we're seeing now really combines research and advocacy with a deliberate attempt to use their donations to change public policy.

It's kind of a reflection on the part of the donors that even with the fairly substantial amounts of money they're putting into the play, the only long-term, sustainable changes are only going to come about if they can alter the policy environment and tap into public funding, which dwarfs even Walton and Gates funding.

Q. Has it really led to change? The charter movement gets a lot of press, but has it really led to change compared to the rest of the K-12 ecosystem?

A. I think I have to say yes. If by that question you mean change in what's happening inside of schools, and student experiences, and the amount of learning going on, that I'd want to put a lot of caveats on and be very careful about. But, if we're talking about change in the organizational and political landscape of education, it's really pretty dramatic.

It was an overstatement back in, say, 1990 to say that every kid in public school was required to go to the single attendance zone school that was assigned to them, but it was close to that. That's not the case anymore.

Q. Do we see that $1 billion number that the Walton Foundation pledged thrown around much in education philanthropy?

A. No. It's a lot of money. ... And there are only a few individuals and organizations that could even come close to playing in that game.

Q. That's not the kind of money you see coming from the teachers' unions.

A.  I mean the teachers' unions have pretty deep pockets also, but they're not investing in the same kind of way. They go-head-to head on the advocacy issues but not on the school creation kinds of issues.

When you line up the teachers' unions on one side, and the foundations and the hedge fund donors who have been funding charters and other kinds of reform efforts, then the teachers' unions are out-muscled on the dollar front.

Now, the teachers' unions have a manpower advantage to some extent—to the extent that the politics of these issues ... depends at least in part on boots on the ground, they have some ability beyond what's measured in their bank accounts.

Let me just make one point while I think of it, too. One of the things that's a little bit hard to sniff out in instances like this is to what extent does Walton thinks of this simply in terms of a supply issue—providing more schools to meet demand (that's the way they frame it) ... versus to what extent they see this also as part of a political strategy, which is expanding the number of families that are invested in charter schools and available as a constituency to help protect them over time.

Q. What has been the Walton Family Foundation's role in funding charter schools, especially in articulating a vision for choice and funding advocacy?

A. Well, they were really pretty early in the game in terms of the foundations in jumping on, and trying to kick-start, the creation of charter schools. Coming from a background where early on John Walton himself was a supporter of vouchers, but the Walton foundation itself, was one of the early organizations to transition from vouchers to charters as a primary focus for, in their words, instituting more options for parents and bringing some degree of competitive pressure on traditional public education systems.

... I think I would underscore this one other thing which is—Walton is illustrative here as well—early on the charter school movement was really conceived of as a movement that would be school based, individual schools run by parents, or teachers, or innovative thinkers. And in Walton's early giving, I think they were supporting stand-alone charters, with individual charter leaders whose work they admired.

What's happened at Walton and in the donor community at large, is they've played a real role in pushing for the growth of the charter-management sector and networks of charter schools in order to prioritize going to scale, as they like to refer to it.

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