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Education Opinion

Let’s All Grant Together

By Sarah Reckhow — October 16, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Sarah Reckhow, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, is guest posting this week.

Not too long ago, education philanthropists were facing persistent criticism for their ineffectiveness. Much of this criticism was tied to the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, which provided grants to 18 project sites to support locally developed education reforms. In his book, The Foundation, Joel Fleishman calls the Annenberg Challenge “one of the major failures in foundation history.” This statement oversimplifies the Challenge’s record--each project site has a different story--but reform initiatives faded away in many Annenberg sites. The criticism continued even as the Annenberg Challenge ended, and Gates became the dominant grant-maker. For example, Jay Greene analyzed grants from 2002 and compared foundation grant-making to “buckets into the sea.” Greene argued that foundation grants were tiny buckets of ineffective funds poured into the vast sea of public expenditures; philanthropy could be more effective only if it was targeted in ways that leverage public education spending.

The tenor of the conversation about education philanthropy has changed a great deal in the past ten years. Criticism about ineffectiveness has been replaced by criticism that foundations are too powerful and plotting to privatize public education from their lofty headquarters. Both of these critiques go too far. But philanthropy has changed, and there are good reasons why it is more effective at shaping public policy than it was a decade ago. As I mentioned yesterday, based on my analysis, education philanthropy is converging in two key ways: First, foundations are increasingly giving to the same organizations. Second, education philanthropy has started to overlap with federal grant-making.

Philanthropic Convergence: the 47 percent: Thanks to Mitt Romney, “47 percent,” has gained some notoriety. I’d like to highlight a new 47 percent statistic. In 2009, 47 percent of grant dollars awarded by the top 15 education foundations went to organizations that received grants from at least two major funders. For example, 9 of the top 15 funders gave grants to Teach for America in 2009.

Also, the kind of organizations that receive the most grant dollars from multiple foundations has changed substantially since 2000. Here are lists of the top 3 multi-foundation grant recipients for 2000 and 2009, the amount they received, and the number of major funders:

The Annenberg Challenge dominated major grant-making in 2000. The projects funded typically involved local nonprofits that worked with public school systems, and each place devised its own strategy. By 2009, the top grant recipients were some of the standard bearers of the Boardroom Progressive movement, including Teach for America, KIPP, and New Schools Venture Fund. (NSVF raises philanthropic funds to invest in targeted initiatives, including charter management organizations and human capital organizations.) While the Annenberg Challenge lacked a common agenda, the new grantees share some common goals--promoting alternative pathways to teaching and school leadership, and promoting charter schools. Moreover, the Annenberg Challenge was celebrated for its massive size, but today’s education philanthropy is larger, more targeted, and more convergent.

Public Private Partnership: No foundation (not even Gates) has resources that compare to the federal government, the biggest “grant-maker” of all. Under the Obama administration, private grant-making and federal grant-making have increasingly overlapped. Some of this overlap has involved direct coordination, particularly through the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) and Race to the Top (RTT) programs.

The first round of the i3 program required a 20 percent private grant match for any federal funds awarded. Initially, 12 foundations--including Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Wallace, and Walton--committed $500 million to “aligned investments” with the i3 program. These foundations created an online Foundation Registry for the i3 program, which grew to 40 participating foundations.

During the RTT application process, Gates offered the funding to states that could prove they share the foundation’s views about education reform by signing an eight-point checklist.” Twenty-four states received Gates support on their applications. Among the 19 states that received RTT grants in Phases 1, 2, and 3, 15 received Gates grants. Also, the RTT application included a powerful incentive for adopting the Common Core State Standards, a major funding priority of the Gates Foundation.

So what?: For critics of hyper-localism and reform incoherence in U.S. education, these changes could be reasons for hope. For example, 46 states and Washington, DC have adopted the Common Core; in the past decade, charter school enrollment has more than quadrupled.

But these funding trends pose two questions. First, will these reforms work in the long run? Second, what is lost when a large share of resources are tied to a narrower set of priorities? I’ll leave the first question for others to answer, and begin to speculate on the second question.

Philanthropy has often played a crucial role in funding programs that are too controversial or experimental for public funding at the outset. Some of these programs have been “buckets into the sea,” others became reform juggernauts (Teach for America), models of a citywide collaboration (the Kalamazoo Promise), and major federal initiatives (Head Start). This role may be shrinking as major foundations conform to a national agenda, rather than challenging or critiquing it. Also many innovative programs start small, improve over time through successive adjustments, adapt to distinct local conditions, and prove themselves only with long term outcomes. Will fewer of these innovations--not yet imagined by major funders--see the light of day?

--Sarah Reckhow

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.