New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education

Weighing the Value of the New Education Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: Continuing the site’s forum on philanthropy & educationFrederick M. Hess discusses his and Jeff Henig’s recent book and suggests ways that the philanthropic sector in the United States can play a positive role in education reform.  We invite readers to engage with this particular post and the broader philanthropy & education forum, along with the site’s more recent dialogue on the history of philanthropy & charity. Please feel free to comment directly on the site and to send blog post ideas to us via email ( or Twitter (@HistPhil).   

In our just-published volume The New Education Philanthropy, Columbia’s Jeff Henig and I explore the outsized role that philanthropy has come to play in contemporary school reform. Leading donors have influenced policy and practice around the Common Core, teacher evaluation systems, extended learning time, and charter schooling. Major foundations have worked closely with the Obama administration on visible programs like Race to the Top and have aggressively funded advocacy groups, think tanks, and research.

As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, there were concerns that the nation’s philanthropic community was retreating from the K-12 public school arena, frustrated with what they regarded as school districts’ stubborn resistance to change. In March 2002, the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, which had been unveiled eight years earlier at a joyous White House ceremony, petered out on a disappointing note. The Challenge’s own final accounting conceded “repeated setbacks, rapid turnover in leadership and sudden changes in direction… that took everyone by surprise.” Less generous reviewers deemed the effort an outright failure. In the early 2000s, some traditional major funders redirected their efforts away from K-12 to pre-K or to other sectors. In one noteworthy development, three major Pittsburgh-based foundations—the Heinz, Pittsburgh, and Grable foundations—announced they would stop funding the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Education philanthropy has since roared back with a vengeance. Fueled by new foundations like Gates, Dell, Broad, and Walton, the new giving is often targeted and policy-focused. The visibility of philanthropy and the controversy over its role has taken on a shape that once would have been astonishing. Where it was once rare to hear attacks on education philanthropy, today many education funders are subject to furious backlash.

The most vehement critics of contemporary philanthropy have asserted that the newfound emphasis on policy has transformed the nature of giving—turning it into something worrisome and undemocratic. Historian Diane Ravitch charged in 2014, “[Those in] the philanthropic sector . . . are using their vast fortunes to undercut public education and impose a free market competition among competing schools. As they go merrily about the task of disrupting an important democratic institution, they work in tandem with the U.S. Department of Education . . . Big money—accountable to no one—and big government have embarked on an experiment in mass privatization.”

Ravitch is right that today’s new philanthropy reflects a growing emphasis on advocacy, structural reform, and public-private partnership. But it’s not clear that these practices are as dramatic a departure as some suggest. Indeed, while it may be more prevalent today, muscular educational giving is not new.

The Ford Foundation was aggressive and unapologetic about its push to radically restructure New York City’s schools in the 1960s. Ford and other donors spent heavily to bankroll litigation and policy advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s that sought to boost and revamp education spending. The Bradley and Olin Foundations played critical roles in supporting the research, advocacy, and policy experimentation that helped bring school choice to the national stage. If one is inclined to go back further, foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie are responsible for helping to create much that eventually came to be seen as unobjectionable and even inevitable—from the SAT to the “Carnegie unit.”

We’ve always been a Tocquevillian nation, where progress springs not from the genius of central planners but from the pushing and shoving of a hearty stew of self-interested actors. That said, it’s clear that some things about today’s education philanthropy are distinctive—and potentially worrisome. Ravitch rightly points out the extraordinary closeness of the working relationship between major funders and the federal government. And, while some foundations have always taken an active interest in policy and reform, the shared priorities, prescriptive metrics, emphasis on advocacy, and coordination among several of today’s most prominent and deep-pocketed education donors is a noteworthy development.

This kind of muscular philanthropy can serve as an enormously valuable catalyst amidst the bureaucracy and deep-set routines of American education. A cacophony of funders, marked by competing agendas and visions of reform, can provide a powerful vehicle for supporting promising individuals and ideas that may be a poor fit for education bureaucracies. Of course, it’s essential that other donors provide a balancing wheel that can counter the groupthink of the moment—and that funders take care not to forge too close a partnership with federal officials.

This means that the merits of educational philanthropy don’t exist in a vacuum. They depend on what donors do, the context they do it in, and whether the whole of the philanthropic community provides that balancing wheel. The question that Henig and I wrestle with is how to judge the health of the whole. Because the most interesting question in education philanthropy is not about the merits of this or that foundation, but whether the sum of the whole is doing more to foster dynamism or to chill dissent.

-Frederick M. Hess

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” His books include With the Best of Intentions (2005) and The New Education Philanthropy (2015). 

One thought on “Weighing the Value of the New Education Philanthropy

  1. This new volume on ed philanthropy by Rick Hess and Jeff Henig is super valuable! I’m reading it now, although we’ve previously reported at Inside Philanthropy on some of the research findings presented by the authors. Of particular note is Jay Greene’s essay on the limits of the new ed philanthropy in the context of a $600 billion K-12 system that’s decentralized and dominated by strong interests groups, making it hard for even the deepest pocketed donors to have much sway.

    One interesting question on my mind lately is whether we may be seeing a new new education philanthropy emerging. A number of growing players in this space, like Laurene Powell Jobs, George Lucas, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Sandler Foundation, have helped shift the conversation away from accountability and school systems to focus more on how students learn. The rising interest in personalized learning is especially notable.

    I wonder if we’ll be having a very different ed philanthropy conversation in a few years? Regardless, this volume is required reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper into what’s been going on for the past decade.


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