Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

September 25, 2013

Can philanthropy ‘fix’ public education?

                                                                                                          © Shutterstock

Special to Philanthropy Journal
Damon Circosta
There is a battle going on in North Carolina, where I work, and across the country for the future of public education. In the fog of war, sometimes it’s tough to tell who is on what side. Everyone wants to ascend to the mantle of “champion for kids” or “reformers of education,” and everyone fervently believes their solution is the winner.
As the debate about public education has become increasingly polarized in the last decade, the sharp partisanship draws frustration from frustrated parents whose objective is to send their kid to a great school.
Meanwhile, another interesting trend continues.  Private philanthropic organizations continue to find ways to support strengthening our schools. The headlines speak for themselves: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Commits $350 Million Nationally To Help Students Succeed in the Classroom, Annenberg to Give Education $500 Million Over Five Years, and Mark Zuckerberg Giving $100 Million to Newark Schools.
For context, America spends more than $500 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education. States typically provide a little less than half, local governments about 44 percent, and the federal government contributes about 13 percent of all direct expenditures.

Philanthropists, by contrast, only spend about $4 billion annually. You need a good education to do the math, which equals just 0.008 percent of total expenditures. Though it’s a drop in the bucket, this private money is having a growing influence on public education. 

The flexibility that philanthropic dollars provide can help spur innovation in our public schools. But foundation money injected into the public school system is merely an opportunity. There are no guarantees that a grant will “fix” public schools.
In my limited experience working to fund education initiatives, here are some issues that we strive to address:
Know Your Limits
As states continue to feel the pinch of the recession, and public school funding does not keep pace with enrollment, foundations are increasingly being asked to send resources to our public schools. But as philanthropists, we must understand our place in a large, complex system. In 1972, the Ford Foundation published a critique of its own education reform efforts during the 1960s. The report observed that the foundation’s projects “underestimated the complexity of improving schools” and did not fully account for the difficulty of working with unions, community leaders and parents, or the effect of broader social conditions. Let this be a lesson for us going forward. 
Fund Innovation
Foundation funds are not large enough to the fill budget gaps left when public revenue decreases. We shouldn’t even attempt to pick up the slack when public dollars fall short. Instead, our money is best spent on programs that are experimental in nature, not plugging holes. It’s been said that foundation dollars can be the “passing gear” of society. As such we should always look to rev the engines of something new, even if it means a greater risk that we will fail.
Invest in Talent
The lion’s share of grant funding goes to pay for salaries.  We need to invest that money in talented people who are doing innovative work. There is no shortage of remarkable talent in public schools, from the classroom teacher to local superintendents. Identify those who are making a mark, support their work and pay them well enough to keep them in public schools. 
Stay Local
A scathing critique of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s concluded that the reason this funding was largely a failure is because the program was based on the notion that failing public schools simply needed expertise from talented and motivated outsiders. Public education is a huge enterprise in this country. Philanthropic dollars work best when they are used to identify a specific, local problem. This strategy builds greater trust between partners and foundations don’t try to bite off more than they can chew.
Be a Cheerleader
While our public education system undeniably needs reform, we must remain positive and humble. Harping on the words “failure” and “broken” is unhelpful to our efforts. Nor is it helpful to pretend that philanthropy can save the day. It might feel good to couch a grant as the “winning ticket” for a school, but it does a disservice to all of the wonderful, important things that others do for public schools. We must be the outspoken and optimistic cheerleaders on the side, sticking up for public education and believing in its success.
Bring Your Friends With You
Too often, I see grant makers get really excited about a project and then restrict the ability of other interested funders to join the effort. The best school improvement projects I’ve seen are ones that have multiple funding streams and buy-in from a broad swath of the community. If you find a project worth investing in, let your grant-making friends know they can share in the work and outcome.
There are very few institutions in our increasingly segmented society that have the opportunity to bring people together like public schools. Our government is polarized, our churches are segregated and we have even begun again to live apart from one another. If we invest in the right strategies, we strengthen an institution that democratizes and unites us. Education provides for our country’s future. It’s vitally important that we get this right.
Damon Circosta is the executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which provides operational funding for Philanthropy Journal.

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