Striking Out: Why Funders Can’t Create Lasting Changes in Education

Over the years, funders have poured hundreds of millions into K-12 education projects, including reading interventions, after-school programs, higher state standards, and college readiness initiatives. The results, however, have been underwhelming.

Numerous stories exist of funders launching major education projects, only to see these efforts end in frustration. Mark Zuckerberg’s much-hyped $100 million gift to the Newark Public Schools is a textbook example of how not to do education philanthropy. In a more recent example, the Walton Family Foundation has backed away from its support of education reform efforts in Milwaukee after big investments over many years. 

Funders have been unable to produce lasting changes in education because of a series of institutional and political obstacles as well as a failure to pursue the kind of strategy most likely to lead to such changes. So argues University of Arkansas political scientist Jay P. Greene in a paper presented at an American Enterprise Institute conference last month on education philanthropy. The conference was titled “Is the New Education Philanthropy Good For Schools? Examining Foundation-Funded School Reform.”

Greene wrote that funders cannot simply compel change by the force of their dollars. He estimated that all foundations put an estimated $2 billion a year into American K-12 education. While this is serious coin by any standard, it is a fraction of 1 percent in a system that spends more than $600 billion a year.

What’s more, Greene said, school systems are not waiting around for funders to tell them what works in education. Educators have their own ideas about effective practices and are skeptical of those pushed by outsiders.

Greene argued that foundations, large and small alike, are more likely to be successful if they pursue the kinds of education policies and programs that build their own constituencies. These constituencies, benefiting from these programs, will in turn advocate for their continuance beyond the grant period.

School choice programs such as charters are the best example of funders engaging in this kind of philanthropy. Since the first charter schools opened in 1991, the charter movement has expanded nationwide, creating hundreds of new schools and new ideas about how to “do school” differently. In the process, charter schools have created a constituency of parents and students, many of whom are frustrated with the status quo in public education and are embracing this new approach to schooling. Walton alone has poured more than $300 million into charter school startups since the late 1990s. The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has helped fund new charter networks in its home state of Washington after passage of a charter school law.

Self-sustaining education reforms have not been limited to creating new schools. Funders have created additional constituencies by ensuring a steady supply of teachers for these new classrooms. Teach For America, a favorite organization among many education fundershas produced thousands of new teachers and created an alternative to university teacher preparation programs. Many charter school teachers are TFA interns and alumni.

Foundation dollars have enabled charter school organizations such as KIPP to expand across the country. Their popularity with students and parents is evident in the many KIPP schools that have to conduct admissions lotteries, as portrayed in the 2010 film Waiting for Superman. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to limit the growth of charter schools, angry parents and students rallied in NYC and at the state capital.

In contrast to these examples of funder-supported reforms that build their own constituents, Greene points out that programs linking student test scores to teacher evaluation and compensation do not build the kinds of constituencies that will fight for such reforms.

Greene’s research presented at the AEI conference builds upon his previous work on this subject. He authored a chapter in Frederick Hess’ 2005 book on education philanthropy. In the years since that book, Greene found that while more funders are focusing on public policy changes and other more sustainable reforms, nearly two-thirds of education philanthropy dollars continue to finance programs and advocacy that are unlikely to be sustained beyond the funding period.