If You Missed This Billionaire's Giant K-12 Gift, Here's Why It Matters

It says something about the velocity of today's mega-giving that a $100 million pledge earlier this month to improve K-12 education could whip by without much comment in the broader worlds of philanthropy and education. 

Maybe it's because the gift was made by a grocery store mogul, not a tech star. Or maybe this one flew largely under the radar because the money is going to improve school leadership in a single state, Texas. 

Whatever the case, there are some good reasons to take a closer look at this gift. 

Let's start with the details. Charles Butt, CEO of the Texas-based HEB chain of grocery stores, said he would commit $100 million from his personal fortune to create a nonprofit leadership institute designed to provide training and continuing education to public school leaders in Texas. Butt announced the formation of the Holdsworth Center, named for Butt’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, at an Austin high school, according to a report by The Texas Tribune. Mary Holdsworth was a teacher in south Texas before marrying HEB founder Howard Edward Butt.

The Holdsworth Center has invited 16 of Texas’ more than 1,200 school districts to apply for one of six initial places in the program. Invited districts include the San Antonio and Austin independent school districts. Although the Holdsworth Center’s first cohorts will be chosen by invitation only, the center plans to open itself to all of the Lone Star State’s school districts by 2019. 

As part of their continuing education through the Holdsworth Center, school principals and district administrators will meet with business and military leaders, and attend lectures and discussions with prominent faculty. School leaders will learn about change management, team building, and school board relations.

So why is this gift important? For a few reasons.

First, the vast majority of K-12 students in the U.S. attend traditional district schools—not charter schools, which are a huge focus of much education philanthropy. Funders who are able to improve these mainstream schools can have a huge impact, and that's especially true in Texas, which has the second-largest public school system in the U.S., one that enrolls over 5 million students—or some 10 percent of all the nation's K-12 students. So while Laurene Powell Jobs got tons of attention for her $100 million give last year to a handful of alternative high schools, it could well be that Charles Butt's similarly sized gift will impact far more students. 

Of course, the big question is whether private philanthropy can do much to improve established public systems. Many donors focus on charters or other alternatives precisely because they have little faith that they can influence traditional districts. 

Which brings us to a second reason Butt's gift is worth a close look: because he's focusing on school leadership, a critical leverage point for improving large public systems. 

Decades of research has found that among the school-related factors influencing student achievement and success, effective school leadership is second only to teacher quality. A 2010 study by the Wallace Foundation, another prominent funder of school leadership programs, reported that it has not found any cases of a school improving its achievement record without talented leadership.

This research explains the rising tempo of gifts to improve school leadership that we've been reporting on over the past several years. Meanwhile, some funders, like the Broad Foundation, have focused on the school leadership niche for a long time. Explaining why he initially focused his K-12 giving on training school superintendents, Eli Broad wrote in his memoir, "In determining how best to leverage our investment in improving America's public schools, we relied on the essential ingredient in any successful organization: smart people." 

The results of Broad's investments in the leadership space have been vigorously debated, but the larger point here is hard to dispute: We need talented, well-trained, and highly motivated leaders running America's $600 billion public school system. 

Butt's big gift is a great example of how to think expansively about boosting both the skills and knowledge of school leaders. 

Participants in this effort also will travel nationally and internationally to observe best practices in school leadership and learn from some of the most successful educators in the U.S. and abroad. Singapore is among the international destinations for school leaders taking part in the Holdsworth Center program. International rankings of education systems place Singapore at or near the top. The island city-state ranked first in 2015 in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). After ending British colonial rule in the 1960s, Singapore began an extensive transformation of its education system under longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who saw human capital as necessary for the country’s prosperity.

Butt appears to admire Singapore’s approach to elementary and secondary education. In 2016, Butt funded a week-long visit there by 37 educators and community leaders from the Lone Star State to observe the island country’s educational institutions.

The announcement of the Holdsworth Center was recent, but its formation has been at least two years in the making. Two years ago, Butt convened a group of experts to study innovative approaches and practices in education leadership. The group traveled across the country and around the world, studying examples that would guide the work of the Holdsworth Center.

Butt and his family are worth $10.7 billion, money made by growing a large grocery store chain. Overseeing a grocery empire is a better background for a K-12 philanthropist than you might think. It requires motivating a large leadership cadre and workforce that's spread across many stores, as well as ensuring consistent quality in produce and other areas. The point here is not that business leaders have the answers to education; but some, like Butts, do have relevant experiences to bring to bear, especially on management issues. 

Other veterans leaders are also involved in this effort. Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and the first African-American woman to lead an Ivy League institution will chair the Holdsworth Center’s board, whose members also include former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

As we said, this gift is a pretty big deal.