Longtime Ed Reformer Reed Hastings Steps Things Up. Where's He Headed?

At Inside Philanthropy, we've been keeping an eye on Netflix CEO and Founder Reed Hastings and his wife Patricia Ann Quillin, and for good reason. For starters, the 55-year-old Hastings is worth $1.44 billion as of this writing. That pot may well grow larger as the video streaming giant Netflix continues to soar. In addition, he and Quillin are Giving Pledge signatories, meaning that most of the couple's wealth will go toward philanthropy. So far, the two have engaged in philanthropy without a formal charitable vehicle, focusing their donations and involvement on education reform over many years. 

Reed Hastings has shown a strong appetite for the kind of muscular ed philanthropy that's become widespread over the past decade, a style that mixes traditional giving with political donations and personal activism. Promoting charter schools is a prime focus of his efforts, and Hastings has long made the argument that more choice and competition is a key to improving schools. "One way to permanently impact the system would be to have 10 to 20 percent of California schoolchildren enrolled in charter schools," he said in 2000. "That would be critical mass, and enough of a force to induce a competitive dynamic in the system." 

Hastings was the president of the California State Board of Education for several years last decade, where he led successful statewide political campaigns for more charter public schools. Hastings currently sits on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. Notable past philanthropic gifts include $3 million to personalized learning giant Kahn Academy. The Hastings couple has also funded charters, recently giving $2 million to charter school operator Rocketship Education. They've also provided start-up funding for Aspire charter network and Hastings is a director of the KIPP Foundation.

Related: Reed Hastings of Netflix Is Yet Another Funder Excited About Blended Learning for K-12

While Hastings and Quillin have been passionate about education for a while, we've wondered when their giving would really ramp up. Now, we have an answer. Hastings recently took to Facebook to announce a new $100 million education fund called the Hastings Fund through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Hastings will serve as sole trustee of the fund and Neerav Kingsland will serve as CEO of the fund. Kingsland is a charter proponent who previously served as CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. He's also a senior fellow at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a funder which has given some $150 million to education groups in the past four years. We've written often about LAJF's ed reform funding, which includes big investments in New Orleans as well as a number of charters and charter advocacy organizations. It's no surprise that someone like Kingsland would be tapped by Hastings.

How aggressively the Hastings Fund scales up and moves into battle mode on K-12 reform remains to be seen. Interestingly, the fund's first big foray isn't even in this area; it's focused on college scholarships. 

The fund has launched with two initial grantees, the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and the United Negro College Fund. The fund will disperse a total of $1.5 million with the aim of providing students of color "exceptional post-secondary educational experiences." 

That said, we'd expect that coming months and years will bring investments in charters, blended learning, and other areas in which Hastings has long been interested. Maybe he'll broaden out to other areas, too. Hastings made waves in 2014 when he called for ending elected school boards, a proposal that didn't go over very well with the president of the California School Board Association, who fired back that "Public oversight of local government is the foundation of American democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where voters entrust boards of education with the education of our youth."

Still, if Hastings decided to put money into pushing this idea, it could open a new frontier in the ed reform push. You could certainly imagine ed reform funders like Hastings seeking new ideas given that scaling charters has proven a long and tough slog, and these schools aren't yet having the catalytic competitive effects that advocates had hoped.

Last year, the Walton Family Foundation put out a new strategic plan that acknowledged the limits of competition. The foundation said its “theory of change has evolved: Choice is necessary, but schools of choice cannot stimulate systematic transformation and large-scale improvements on their own.”

Tech funders pride themselves on their ability to fail, learn and change—and we wonder how many will put big money into charters and choice going forward, given the less-than-transformative results of this strategy to date. 

It's been notable that as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have scaled up their ed giving, they've built an increasingly diversified grantmaking portfolio and have not put all their eggs in the charter/choice basket. Other Silicon Valley donors, like Laurene Powell Jobs, are also looking at other strategies—with a big focus on changing how students learn to introduce more personalized approaches and spur greater creativity. 

Will Hastings, one of the most die-hard advocates of charters in California, also start to think more broadly about his approach to education? Well, to some degree he already has, with that big gift to the Kahn Academy a while back. And now comes his major move into post-secondary education. So stay tuned. 

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