Local Education Philanthropy: The Story No One is Talking About

Our understanding of philanthropy is faulty. Judging by news stories, commentaries, and blogs, one would assume the billion-dollar foundations of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family were representative of the field. But nothing could be further from the truth. King McGlaughon, CEO of Foundation Source, wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that 98 percent of private foundations in the United States are those with endowments of less than $50 million. Two-thirds of these philanthropies have endowments of less than $1 million. McGlaughon says the focus on the wealthiest 2 percent of foundations distorts perceptions of the field at large. “If people fundamentally believe that the investing and grantmaking behaviors of the mega-foundations are the norm, then it creates a ripple effect based on less-than-accurate assumptions.”

Local Education Philanthropies

Education philanthropy tends to be rife with less than accurate assumptions. In his new book, The Founders, Richard Whitmire devotes a chapter to education philanthropy. While he discusses the usual suspects, he also writes about local foundations’ efforts to attract high-performing charter school networks to San Antonio, Texas. The stories of smaller, homegrown philanthropies get short shrift in news media, although their endeavors may be the most interesting, writes Whitmire:
What’s playing out in San Antonio, with smaller local foundations drawing in top charters to quickly expand quality school options, is mostly unobserved nationally, where the focus is more on the big foundations, such as the Walton Family Foundation or Charter School Growth Fund, helping charters. Those are the foundations taking the political heat from teachers unions and the progressive left for ‘billionaires’ trying to ‘privatize’ public education. But to miss stories such as San Antonio would mean missing the most creative pockets of the philanthropic movement to give poor and minority parents school choices they have lacked.
San Antonio’s push for better schools began when Victoria Rico, a member of a local family of prominent attorneys, corralled a team of the city’s foundations to support a school choice advocacy group to increase the number of successful charter schools. San Antonio isn’t the only city whose schools benefit from local largesse, nor are charter schools necessarily the priority of foundations’ giving. Local philanthropies in Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., are working with districts to boost low-performing schools and promote community engagement.
  • The Foundation for the Carolinas gathered donations from other local philanthropies to fund Project L.I.F.T., a five-year, $55 million plan to improve nine struggling schools in West Charlotte through recruiting and training principals and teachers and expanding students’ learning time.
  • Jacksonville’s Quality Education for All Fund raised $50 million for a teacher residency program, a Principal Leadership Institute, performance pay incentives, and a new data system.
  • Memphis used its funding to enable in-district groups and nonprofits to turn around underperforming schools, as well as allowing local charter schools to expand and attract successful outside operators. In concert with bolstering school choice, Memphis donors are bringing new teachers to the city and developing current ones with local universities and community organizations.
Some wealthier foundations like Salesforce.org, the foundation of the cloud computing company in San Francisco, fund both traditional public and charter schools. Salesforce has donated millions to the San Francisco Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District for computer science education, infrastructure, and technology needs. Salesforce.org also supports KIPP and Breakthrough New York charter schools. An unsung hero in Detroit, home to the country's lowest-performing schools, is the Skillman Foundation. It used its clout in one of the most challenging educational landscapes to convene groups often at odds with one another to agree on what the most pressing needs were for the city’s schools. Skillman officials convened leaders of traditional district and charter schools, the teachers union, clergy, the NAACP and parent organizers to draft a proposal for a local accountability system to push for quality in all schools.

Moving the Conversation Forward

Education philanthropy, as Paul Perry and David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy write, is much more than what tends to dominate press coverage. It is more varied and local than people typically think:
If you're only half tuned in to the education philanthropy space, you might think that most funders could care less about traditional public schools as they rush to pump money into charters and education nonprofits. Of course, that wouldn't make much sense, given that 95 percent of U.S. K-12 students still go to regular district schools.
Whitman got the conversation going again, but we’d do well to highlight the work of smaller foundations and local philanthropists who are every bit as committed to improving schools as the boldface names are. Let’s tune in.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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