In This Corner of the Education Fight: Heavyweight George Lucas

It's no secret that George Lucas will devote the bulk of his $5 billion fortune to education. But what's far less clear is how exactly that money will be given away—and maybe Lucas himself hasn't figured this all out. But at least two things are clear: One, Lucas will soon be a heavyweight in ed philanthropy, and two, he's not just another charter-school-loving, teacher-union-busting, metrics-obsessed billionaire. Instead, think humanistic Hollywood liberal turned mega ed funder, and you'll have a better sense of where things will likely go. 

George Lucas has long been attuned to philanthropy, building up the assets of his George Lucas Foundation (which had $1.1 billion at the end of 2012), and underwriting the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which operates under the name Edutopia. The latter doesn't have significant assets of its own (or didn't as of the end of 2012), but rather is an education research and policy shop which is annually funded by his main foundation. 

Lucas netted $4 billion in late 2012 from selling his film company to Disney, and said all this money would go to philanthropy. What is not known is whether Lucas will, or already has, put that money straight into his foundation. You'd think he would for tax reasons, but we don't know the details because 990s for 2013 are not yet available.

Let me put this another way: Lucas's foundation may soon rank among the 15 largest in the U.S.—bigger than the Rockefeller Foundation. (It's yet another example of a fast-changing philanthropic pecking order when the creator of Star Wars has a bigger pile to give away than Rockefeller. Get used to this kind of thing.) 

Lucas has made some big league gifts in the past decade, which we've written about elsewhere. But they're nothing compared to what lies ahead.

To understand where Lucas is likely to go with his ed giving, the place to start is his Giving Pledge letter, which reads a bit like a manifesto. Lucas recalled that he was bored as a high school student in an atmosphere that was "not conducive to learning." And says: "It's scary to think of our education system as little better than an assembly line with producing diplomas as its only goal." 

Lucas sees the goals of education as very different, saying he believes in "the artisan school of learning through apprentices and Aristotelian questions and discussion." And he believes in life-long learning. Yes, he knows there have to be universal standards and assessment, but the bigger challenge is "fostering independent thought and a desire to keep learning... We need to promote critical thinking and emotional intelligence." Regarding education, Lucas adds: "It's the key to the survival of the human race." 

You don't hear that kind of language every day from billionaire ed funders, and if George Lucas fully emerges as a major ed grantmaker, he may act as a counter-weight to funders like Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Arnolds.

Digging into Edutopia offers more specific insights into what ed approaches Lucas favors. Edutopia says its mission is "improving the K-12 learning process through innovative, replicable, and evidence-based strategies that prepare students to thrive in their studies, careers, and adult lives."

Lucas bankrolls this operation to the tune of $4 million a year—money which pays for researching education practices, disseminating information about best practices, and also producing educational software. 

Edutopia is deep into six strategies, nearly all of which reflect a progressive approach education. One strategy is social and emotional learning, which is about learning communications and conflict resolution, and is also popular with other progressive funders. Another is integrated studies, which stresses the need to teach in a holistic way that connects topics, and has been touted by progressive educators going back to John Dewey. Edutopia also focuses on teachers, but you won't find the usual bashing of teachers unions or focus on accountability. Instead, Lucas's outfit stresses helping teachers develop as professionals by working with experienced mentors and other strategies. The tone is deeply appreciative, as opposed to punitive. 

Perhaps the most important thing to know about George Lucas and education is that he is deeply into this issue, and has been working it for twenty years. This is not another billionaire who is parachuting into the ed wars as a newbie. Lucas has strong passion, but also deep knowledge, a formidable combination when paired with $5 billion. 

Lucas hasn't said much about the future trajectory of his ed philanthropy, but through Edutopia he's created a clear blueprint for large-scale grantmaking. When and if Lucas decides to really turn on the spigot, it's no mystery what his priorities will be.