A Funder Arrives on the Early Childhood Education Scene in a Very Big Way

Early childhood ed is prominent on the radar of both government and philanthropy, but it's got a lot of ground to make up. Back in 2014, President Obama announced a $1 billion public-private initiative to expand preschool programs around the country, with the government providing about $700 million. It's a significant sum, but it followed plenty of budget cutting that hit many programs hard—even as research indicates strong links between early childhood education and later success.

In our coverage, we've seen that while early childhood education has historically been a niche philanthropic priority, there are some active players in this space who are pushing hard these days, including the Buffet Early Childhood Education Fund, the Kellogg, PNC, Helios, and the Bezos Family foundations. In addition, some relative newcomers have been writing big checks, like J.B. Pritzker. And, as we've reported, the Gates Foundation has been exploring funding in this area, which could be a game changer. At the local level, as we've also reported, funders like the Penn Foundation have hatched some big new initiatives. (Take a look at our Early Childhood Ed funder profiles to get a better idea of the current givers in this area.)

In short, there's a lot happening with philanthropy and early childhood right now. The activity includes not just more grantmaking, but more collaboration and a more forward posture in policy debates through the First Five Years Fund, as well as other advocacy efforts. 


Now comes some major news on the research and policy side of early childhood funding.

The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, named for the late music and film industry mogul, has pledged $35 million to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to research the area of education for young children. The grant funds several strategies, including research to drive policy and practice, high-quality professional learning, cultivation of new leaders in the field, and the development of evidence to bear on public policy.

The $35 million grant is not only the biggest ever to Harvard's Graduate School of Education; it's also among the largest sums ever given to a university for early childhood education. Certainly, it's a big deal in a funding field that still has a limited number of players. 

We aren't aware of previous giving in this area from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, which was established in 1997. Zaentz died in 2014 at age 92; he was a major figure in the mid-century jazz recording industry, and in the 1960s, added rock and roll to the mix. Later, he became a successful film producer, and received the Best Picture Academy Award for three films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient.

(As an aside, the significant wealth Zaentz accumulated underscores a point we make often, which is that much more philanthropy is emerging from the entertainment sector after decades of steadily rising compensation for creative talent. See our guide to entertainment funders: Glitzy Giving.)

As for giving out of the Zaentz trust, it's certainly not surprising that a charity with roots in the film industry funded the creation of the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media Studies. That was just announced last month, created with a $1 million Zaentz grant; it supports development of new and diverse Baltimore-based voices in film and other visual media.  

But the Harvard gift suggests the Zaentz charity has even bigger goals in mind. A large gift like the Zaentz grant to a high-profile institution like Harvard may intensify the spotlight on early childhood education and encourage more philanthropy for this age group. So two gifts in a row from the Zaentz foundation, one in media diversity and another in early childhood education. We'll keep an eye out for what comes next.