Eggs in Several Baskets: One Conservative Funder's Priorities and How They Connect

We’ve written before about the Kern Family Foundation, a major conservative funder out of the Midwest that heavily funds charter school growth, yet has little name recognition in the sector.

But Kern is not all charter schools all the time. The same ideology that undergirds this funder’s belief in school choice also fuels its investments in pastoral leadership, engineering, and school leadership.

Kern’s “Faith, Work, and Economics” portfolio strives to train aspiring pastors in “how the economy is a moral system in which people exchange their work, and that free enterprise grounded in moral character is the most effective way to promote dignity, lift people out of poverty, and produce human flourishing.”

Whether or not the Kern Family Foundation missed that day at Sunday School when they discuss Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, we will never know. But it is clear how its values drive the foundation's funding in this area.

Connected to its belief in the importance of pastoral leadership is the investment in pre-engineering programs across the United States. This funder has invested heavily in post-secondary engineering programs and even boasts its own Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) with the goal of graduating more and better engineers to bolster U.S. global competitiveness in this area. Again, the value here is the connection between education and competition as it comes through this funding priority. 

Organizations like Teach For America (TFA) and New Leaders have had no qualms about accepting millions from this deeply conservative funder even as they place teachers and principals in the deepest “blue” urban communities around the country.

Kern is also a major funder of the decidedly right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which has expressed support for alternative certification programs like TFA as injecting necessary competition into the teacher labor market.

For Kern, funding a virtuous golden triangle. Funding direct service programs that support market-based ideals of competition in the education sector, investing in think tanks that further support such approaches, while also funding the creation of charter schools (through multi-million dollar funding for outfits like the Charter School Growth Fund) where the work can get done on the ground. 

The unifying ideal here is to improve the performance of the individual (pastor, engineer, teacher, principal) causing all boats to rise. Make the leaders in a given field more competitive and we’re all pushed to improve. It's an Horatio Alger approach to philanthropy.