Education and the 2016 Election: Implications for Funders and Nonprofits

In 2007, with the education reform movement on a roll, two top funders of that push—Bill Gates and Eli Broad—announced they were investing $60 million to make education a top issue in the 2008 election. Later, both philanthropists would enjoy strong ties with the Obama Administration and its Department of Education, helping shape such policies as Race to the Top and the Common Core standards. 

Fast forward eight years, and it's hard to see where the big opening is for top education philanthropists hoping to influence either the election or whatever policy decisions follow. 

The platform debates, state roll calls, and balloon drops are over as the two major parties’ nominating conventions have come to an end. If the acceptance speeches of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are any indication of what lies ahead, the 2016 presidential campaign is shaping up to look like 2012, when education  remained on the sidelines. 

It wasn’t always this way. In past presidential races, America’s schools have often been prominent in party platforms. In 1992, Bill Clinton touted his education credentials as governor of Arkansas, a state recognized as an early leader in the reform movement that swept the country in the 1980s after the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. In 2000, George W. Bush placed education high on his agenda, winning greater support from some traditionally Democratic constituencies than is usual for a Republican candidate. This paved the way for the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law.

This year’s candidates and their education goals have important implications for the course of school policy. The Obama administration is currently developing proposed regulations to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest incarnation of federal education policy, through negotiated rulemaking, in which a range of interest group representatives, including teachers, principals, civil rights organizations and others, meet to find consensus on a set of regulations. The results of the November election may well set the course for what the rules ultimately look like.

A range of observers will listen closely for clues to the major presidential candidates’ policy preferences when it comes to schooling. Among those listening will be the funders who now prominent in education policy, bankrolling numerous programs and initiatives, not to mention reams of research and extensive policy advocacy. These funders will pay close attention to which candidates’ policy ideas align with their own.

They'll have to listen pretty hard to hear much of anything. 

While there was much talk in the Republican primaries about the Common Core, pitting one champion of the standards (Jeb Bush) against multiple critics (everyone else), K-12 issues have otherwise been almost invisible. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and her leading opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, sparred mainly over higher education, with Sanders’ advocacy of free college education for all Americans striking a chord with progressive and younger voters.

By the conventions, though, education had largely faded into the background. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s acceptance speech included only a reference to “failing schools” and a promise to empower parents through school choice.

The Democratic convention in Philadelphia wasn’t much different. In her acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton moved toward Sanders’ plan to make college tuition-free and called for a country in which parents could send their children to good schools regardless of what ZIP code they lived in. Other than that, there was little mention of schooling.

Clinton hasn't been sending many encouraging signals to the pro-reform crowd. She has enjoyed strong support from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which endorsed her in 2008 and was the first major union to so in the 2016 race. Earlier in July, Clinton was well received by the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, which also endorsed her last year, despite her support for charter schools, most of which are not unionized. In her NEA speech, Clinton promised that the unions would have a greater role in education policy, a marked departure from her predecessor, who has aligned with the wing of the Democratic Party that believes the unions hold too much influence.

A Clinton presidency could mean a greater emphasis on early childhood education, which would be good news for funder-driven efforts such as the First Five Years Fund, which advocates greater funding for early learning. Funders behind FFYF include the Gates, Kellogg, and Heising-Simons foundations, along with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and Chicago philanthropist J.B. Pritzker.

In her NEA speech, Clinton called for expanded access to child care and pre-kindergarten. These positions align with her track record, which includes working for and serving on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund. They also align with top priorities among many education funders. A report on funding trends in 2015 by Grantmakers for Education identified early learning quality and access as the third- and fifth-highest focus areas, respectively, as measured by amount of funding. Postsecondary success led the pack, followed by STEM.

Clinton also has promised action on college access and student loan debts. Higher education costs have skyrocketed far past the rate of inflation, and student debt loads topped $1 trillion in 2015. A number of funders, including the Gates, Kresge, Lumina, and Ford foundations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, along with other funders, formed the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), a partnership to research, develop, and advocate for policy changes to reduce student debt and make college more affordable.

In contrast to Clinton, pinning down Trump’s education positions is more difficult. Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the Huffington Post that Trump does not appear to have given these issues much thought. What little the New York real estate mogul has said about schooling largely echoes familiar Republican themes: eliminating the Department of Education, ending Common Core, and expanding choice programs, especially charter schools. 

Charter schools are one of the few education policy areas with bipartisan support. Plus, the movement is backed by an impressive range of funders committed to its growth. Charter schools and charter networks ranked fourth on Grantmakers for Education’s list of top focus areas for education philanthropists.

Walton Family Foundation has committed to doubling the number of charter schools nationwide, and the Broad Foundation wants to expand the charter presence in Los Angeles. Other powerful funders backing these schools include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Meanwhile, many urban districts are coping with declining enrollment and reduced funding, as a growing number of parents enroll their children in charter schools. Regardless of who becomes president, the charter school movement is not going away.

Nor is education philanthropy. Grantmakers for Education projected that funder activity in education would continue to grow, with total grantmaking topping $2 billion in 2016, a 7 percent increase over 2015. Further, the range of funders involved includes not only top national foundations, which get many of the headlines, but many regional and local funders, as well.

Additional emerging trends identified in the Grantmakers report include meeting the needs of diverse learners. This includes social-emotional learning, career and technical education, and education for English Language Learners, including immigrants. A third trend is revisiting major areas of reform such as the Common Core standards. These funders will be listening for signals from both candidates to determine what a future administration will mean for education priorities and policies.

Given the limited attention paid to these issues on the national stage, however, funders may have to listen—as I said—very closely.