Is there a meaningful role for philanthropy in our push to improve our public schools?
While we may think the answer is a simple one, the Los Angeles Times recently called it into question, suggesting that organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shouldn’t be involved in setting the agenda when it comes to education.
The point made by the L.A. Times’ editorial board seemed to be that public education desperately needs the checkbooks of philanthropy, but that the money should just be left on the stump, and those checks should come with no input on how to address the greatest challenges facing our schools and our communities.
For more than 30 years now, the United States has wrung its collective hands regarding the difficulties in our education systems and how insurmountable the problems may be. We are quick to ascribe blame or throw bricks, but little is actually done to remedy the shortcomings. These challenges only get more significant as states and local communities deal with greater education obligations and level budgets, meaning they simply do not have the financial resources to innovate or improve; it is all they can do to maintain.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education, more than $621 billion a year is spent on elementary and secondary education in this country, a little less than $11,000 for every child enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Yet despite all of those dollars coming through federal, state and local funding sources, when improvement isn’t fast or large enough, we place blame on philanthropies who represent a fraction of a fraction of a percent of what is spent on education each and every year in this country.
Somehow, the priorities placed on how that fraction is spent are the reason why our schools continue to struggle.
To be clear, the troubles facing public education are both significant and persistent. Inequities, opportunity gaps, and proper resourcing have dogged our schools since the idea of free public schools for all was introduced. No single check or funder or policy idea can be emphasized that will quickly fix all that ails American public education.
But that doesn’t mean we cannot and should not try to find those solutions. With philanthropic support, our schools are able to try things they otherwise could not. They are able to innovate as they continue to do all of the things required of them under the law.
They are able to experiment and provide incentives. And they are able to reject the notion that we must continue to do the same things that resulted in our struggles, simply because that is what is currently expected and mandated.
For more than a century, philanthropy has served as a change agent in education. It has allowed our schools and other institutions to chart new paths and embrace real improvements.
Without the support of the Carnegie Foundation, our medical colleges would still be diploma mills allowing virtually anyone to earn the title of medical doctor.
Without the commitment of organizations such as the Wallace Foundation, we would not understand the true transformative power a school principal can have, as both a building manager and instructional leader.
Without the vision of the MacArthur Foundation and many others, the digital world would not play the central role in education that it does today.
From libraries to college scholarships, from the arts to physical education, from leveling playing fields to breaking down walls, philanthropy has been an important partner in American public education, particularly when states and school districts cannot or will not fund the improvements and innovations much needed by our students.
These initiatives and the dollars that come with them are not forced on recipients. The education community has sought them, and will continue to do so.
Rather than attack philanthropic organizations for their passionate support of their priorities, we should applaud those who are able to publicly acknowledge that they have fallen short of their goals or recognize that the problem is more complex than they originally appreciated.
In an age in which high-need schools have largely been failing children, rather than seeking to silence those looking for answers, a better response may be “thank you for trying.”
If we have learned anything from the school-improvement movement to date, it is that true collaboration—of educators and advocates, policymakers and parents, business and philanthropy—is needed if we are to bring the real change, innovation and improvement future generations of learners both need and deserve.