The Politicians May Be Quiet on K-12, But Foundations Are Busier Than Ever

Notice anything missing from national politics lately? Oh, right: Almost nobody is talking about K-12 education. This issue has barely been mentioned in the presidential debates among either Democrats or Republicans, and also seems to have disappeared from the agenda in Washington, D.C., since lawmakers united to replace No Child Left Behind last year with the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

Related: No Child Left Behind is Gone. But What Does the New Ed Law Mean for K-12 Funding?

To be sure, other education issues are surfacing in national politics, with President Obama continuing to push pre-K and both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton touting plans to make college more affordable. Meanwhile, though, K-12 has seemingly sailed into the doldrums. 

But fear not: Here in the philanthrosphere, the quest to improve public schools is as hot as ever. Even hotter, actually. In the second half of 2015, we reported on several big developments: a new $500 million plan by funders to move half of students in Los Angeles into charters schools; a major initiative by Laurene Powell Jobs to reinvent high school for the 21st century; a big regional initiative by the Nellie Mae Foundation to improve education in New England; the launch of a new Learning Policy Institute backed by the Sandler Foundation and other funders; and the announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan that they will devote 99 percent of their fortune to social change, with education as a major focus. 


This momentum continues in the new year. 

So far, 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for K-12 education philanthropy. Earlier, we told you about the Walton Family Foundation committing $1 billion over the next five years to education projects, which is great news for the charter school movement 25 years after the nation's first charter schools opened in Minnesota. Walton is one of the most enthusiastic funders of charter schools, and it plans to use much of its $1 billion commitment to grow new charters.

Related: How Walton is Doubling Down on Charter Schools

On the heels of Walton's announcement comes the news that Netflix founder Reed Hastings has created a new education philanthropy fund, known as the Hastings Fund, through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The fund will be worth about $100 million.

Like Walton, Hastings is another prominent supporter of charter schools. The former president of the California State Board of Education and current board member of the California Charter Schools Association has spent big on charter schools in the past. Previous gifts include $2 million to Rocketship Education, a charter school operator. Hastings' education interests are not limited to charters, however. He has also given $3 million to Khan Academy, the personalized learning organization.

Hastings' new education funding initiative includes higher education, as well. Early funding decisions include the United Negro College Fund and the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. Hastings will fund college scholarships through these investments.

Related: Longtime Ed Reformer Reed Hastings Steps Things Up. Where's He Headed?

Now comes the news that banking giant JP Morgan Chase will put $75 million into career and technical education (CTE) programs to improve employment opportunities for youth. This new funding commitment from JP Morgan Chase aims to better prepare young people in high school for careers in "middle-skills" industries, the kinds that require a certificate or two-year degree rather than a four-year college degree. These fields include computer technology, nursing and manufacturing. The initiative will award grants of $100,000 each to up to 25 states to implement CTE programs aligned to the needs of local employers. Follow-up grants will give $2 million each to as many as 15 states for their CTE programs.

This move by JP Morgan Chase is another sign that school-to-career efforts are gaining favor among funders. Just the other day, we reported on how the Barr Foundation, among the most important ed funders in Boston, is revamping its K-12 grantmaking to head in this direction. 

For those of you keeping score, these major funding commitments from Walton, Hastings, and Chase add up to an estimated $1.2 billion for for early 2016. While $1.2 billion is a tiny fraction of the billions spent on education at the federal, state and local levels, it's pretty good evidence that K-12 philanthropy isn't losing steamdespite the disappointments and frustrations that funders have experienced in the past decade. 

We've argued that the mixed track record of education philanthropy in recent years suggests that funders need to consider new strategies for attacking larger inequities in education and the underlying problem of poverty. We'll keep an eye out for new initiatives in 2016 that take on these systemic issues, perhaps piloted by fresh funders arriving on the scene. As we often point out, the philanthrosphere is very much in flux right now, with many new major donors emerging. 

Related: Ed Funders Need to Think Bigger About Systemic Change. Here Are Some Ideas

Beyond the new initiatives already mentioned, 2016 will likely see continued support for charter schools and technology-heavy ideas such as blended learning, as well as support for projects aimed at teacher training and college and career readiness. We also expect more efforts aimed at changing how students learn with an eye on improving critical problem solving skills and fostering creativity. The momentum behind personalized learning is sure to grow, especially with Gates focusing more in this area. 

Related: Personalized Learning Is a Big, Exciting Idea. But Can Funders Like Gates Get It Right?