The Donor Behind a Major Boost for Charters in Washington, D.C.

We wrote recently about how Washington, D.C., is a "money magnet" for education dollars from reform-minded foundations and individual donors. But we wondered in that piece whether the ed grants and gifts would keep coming to the cityjust as we've wondered more broadly whether education reform funders might be running out of steam when it comes to backing charter schools, which have still not scaled to educate more than a small sliver of U.S. school kids. 

Related: If You Thought Charter School Funders Might Be Losing Steam, Think Again

Well, here's an important piece of news that speaks to those questions and offers insights into the individual donors who are often key players in backing reform efforts. 

KIPP DC recently received a $4.2 million gift from Joel Smilow to support the renovation and expansion of its sixth campus in Northeast Washington, D.C., which will be renamed the Joel E. Smilow Campus. KIPP DC is a network of college-preparatory public charter schools that currently serves 5,240 students at sixteen schools on six campuses.  

Smilow's gift is the largest individual contribution in KIPP DC's history, and the motivations here are especially personal. Smilow, a Washington D.C. native, was a student of D.C. public schools, and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1950. Smilow went on to attend Yale University and Harvard Business School before becoming president and chief executive of Playtex Products. Smilow retired in 1995. It's easy to see why someone with Smilow's background would give a big gift in the K-12 space.

What's interesting here, though, is how KIPP DC snagged a multimillion dollar gift from Smilow when much of his philanthropy has involved health causes. Past philanthropy includes the Smilow Cancer Hospital in the Yale-New Haven Hospital Health System, and the Smilow Center for Translational Research at the University of Pennsylvania. As well, Smilow currently lives in Connecticut, and his Joel E. Smilow Charitable Trust also focuses many of its grants in that region.

What's the story here?

Well, while Smilow calls his gift to KIPP DC his "first major gift in direct support of... quality K–12 education for all," he's a former national board member of Teach for America, and played a role in the organization's expansion in Connecticut. He gave more than $1 million to Teach for America-New York in 2006. As well, Smilow is the largest living donor to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and once served as vice chairman of the national organization's board. Ten clubhouses that he's funded bear his name. It's safe to say that supporting youth is an important part of Smilow's philanthropy.

In addition, Smilow is in his early 80s, and has indicated that all his wealth will go to charity. He told the Wall Street Journal that "the most important thing is to do it now... all of my money eventually goes to charity, but the more that can go now, the better." It's likely that Smilow is increasingly conscious of the kind of legacy he wants to leave, and supporting K–12 education is part of that. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning how much money the country's top charters are able to rake in. KIPP DC reported $16.8 million in philanthropic revenue during the 2014 fiscal year, though some of that reflects the net value of a school building it acquired.

Related: Becoming a Money Magnet: The Lessons of the D.C. Ed Philanthropy Boom