OVERVIEW: The Kern Family Foundation believes choice and competition through charter schools and vouchers will improve American education. This funder has generously supported charter school organizations and research, with a focus on large-scale, systemic efforts. Its education progrm has three focus areas: International Competitiveness, Character Formation, and the fostering of School Leaders.
IP TAKE: The Kern Family Foundation is a major player in charter schools and other school choice programs, though grantseekers should keep in mind that this foundation’s funding is not exclusive to charter schools. Related grants are awarded out of the Kern's K-12 Education program, but the foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals.
PROFILE: The Kern Family Foundation was established in the 1990s by Robert and Patricia Kern of Waukesha, Wisconsin. The Kerns sold off one division of their family business, generator manufacturer Generac Power Systems, and used the proceeds to build the foundation. In 2006, the Kerns sold the balance of the company and directed some of the profits toward the foundation, the mission of which includes “promoting the value of work, developing the formation of good character, increasing educational achievement – particularly in science, technology, engineering and math” by focusing on “systemic change” and “funding broad impact, long-term programs.” Beyond K-12 education, the foundation also supports undergraduate programs to create more engineers.
Kern's K-12 Education program has clear ideological roots — namely, the idea that choice and competition will improve the quality of education across the country. The foundation's perspective on education is reflected in the backgrounds of leaders such as its president, James C. Rahn, who serves on the national council of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and is on the board of the Charter School Growth Fund.
For Kern, charter schools are a favored means for introducing more competition into education and of keeping Americans competitive internationally. The K-12 Education program has three focus areas:
- International Competitiveness, aimed at readying “U.S. students to compete internationally in math and science to ensure their future prosperity”
- Character Formation, supporting efforts that instill “a sense of moral responsibility to provide a path to a meaningful, honest, and flourishing life”
- School Leaders, which supports efforts to have more educators who can “develop school cultures focused on academic achievement and character formation.”
As mentioned above, The Kern Family Foundation aims for nationwide impact, preferring to support national charter school organizations and networks. Two key examples are the Charter School Growth Fund, which supports charter management organizations across the country, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which advocates for greater school choice — whether through vouchers or charter schools — for African American families. The high-profile New York charter network Success Academies has also received support from Kern.
The foundation also has supported school choice advocacy research by organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Manhattan Institute.
Kern has also worked with a number of education organizations through its Good Character Program, which is separate from (but clearly related to) its K-12 Education efforts. Through Good Character, Kern works with a variety of organizations as it “supports practical research and tools for the formation of good character in the rising generation.” Partner K-12 organizations include the Denver-based, STEM-focused charter network Denver School of Science and Technology; Educational Enterprises, a non-profit that runs public charter schools as well as private Christian schools; and Great Schools, which helps parents research and review schools in their area, among other services and bills itself as “the leading national guide to PK-12 schools.”
Unfortunately, the Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals, making it tough for new grantees to get their foot in the door.
- James C. Rahn, President
- Ryan S. Olson, Team Leader, Character Program
- David Bramlett, Director, K-12 Program