How Philanthropists Are Investing in a Charter-Like Network of Early Learning Centers

There's plenty of research to show that when the youngest learners — from birth to five years old — are exposed to educational opportunities, they’re much more likely to succeed later in school. So it makes sense that philanthropists are investing in early childhood learning: it provides a promising social return.

But as budgets for public education shrink, funding for ECE is often the first to go. For low-income families, access to early learning programs is scarce and it isn't always an affordable option, and this lack of access is contributing in a big way to the achievement gap in U.S. public education. At-risk students fall behind early and struggle through the rest of their academic careers to make up ground.

But there is a stable of donors working to reverse that trend. A national network of early learning centers, funded by a group of philanthropists with deep pockets, is growing. And it’s likely to be a major factor in the future of education for our youngest learners.

Since 2000, Chicago-based nonprofit Ounce of Prevention has been building a network of early childhood learning centers that helps bridge the achievement gap, providing learning opportunities to the most at-risk children. The organization’s Educare schools began in Chicago and the state of Illinois, and since then, they’ve expanded into a national platform.

Early on, the expansion was fueled by a 2003 gift from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, a major funder of early childhood learning and Ounce. But these days the Educare Learning Network — which now has 20 schools across the country and with plans for more — courts a variety of major early education funders.

This list includes the Irving Harris Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others, and each year these foundations pool funds for challenge grants designed to help communities leverage funds to open Educare schools.

The Educare network features a unique approach that serves infants to five-year-olds from low-income families. The schools use a research-based learning program and encourage parent and community involvement, and public-private partnerships are also a tenet of the network’s philosophy.

As far as structure, the Educare network shares similarities to the increasingly common charter school movement. Both charters and Educare emphasize quality curricula, and a big chunk of their operating costs come from public sources. Philanthropists also support capital campaigns to build facilities — another parallel. 

But Educare, and more broadly early childhood learning centers, haven’t picked up the philanthropic steam that’s driven the exponential charter growth.

That may be changing soon, and Educare might become a model for success in early childhood learning. One recent example is an Educare facility that opened in Washington D.C. last year. Major funding came from a variety of foundations, including a $5 million grant from Kellogg, and major support from Buffett.

For many of these major organizations, Educare is just one example of their commitment to early learning programs, but the growing network, with its similarities to charter networks, is definitely an interesting development.