School & District Management

Researchers Ask Tough Questions of K-12 Charities

By Caroline Hendrie — April 26, 2005 9 min read
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Private foundations can play a critical, catalytic role in changing American public education for the better, but they could and should be getting more bang for their bucks than they are right now.

That argument runs through a diverse collection of research papers, commissioned for a conference this week, that aims to shed unprecedented light both on the scope of contemporary education philanthropy and its impact on the field.

Slated to become the basis of a book published next fall by Harvard Education Press, the papers draw different and sometimes contradictory conclusions from the often-sketchy data available on what the scholars estimate is the roughly $1.5 billion a year that private giving supplies to K-12 education.

Read the papers presented at the American Enterprise Institute’s conference “With the Best of Intentions: Lessons Learned in K-12 Education Philanthropy.”

Still, the collection’s editor wants to send a message through the very act of having more than a dozen scholars put education philanthropy under the microscope: Don’t think you’ve got all the answers just because you give away millions of dollars a year.

“People are very cautious about looking at these guys,” said Frederick M. Hess, who is heading up the research project on philanthropy for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, where he is the director of education policy studies. “It’s time that the scholarly community steps up and asks hard questions.”

The wide-ranging papers include new research on spending by the 30 biggest donors to K-12 education, the educational views of foundations’ program officers, and the role of philanthropy in promoting school choice.

One paper examines philanthropy’s role in spurring changes in three school districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Houston, and San Diego. Another looks at how private giving seeded Teach For America and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Others examine philanthropy’s impact on spreading new approaches, such as charter schools, vouchers, and small schools.

Throughout the papers, specific foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation alternately get kudos and take knocks for the effectiveness of their initiatives.

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Table: How Much Bang for the Buck?

Several scholars stress that donors could avoid wasting their resources by thinking harder about how best to complement the much larger sums flowing into education from public coffers. That shortcoming, they argue, has far-reaching ramifications.

“Even though these foundations make up a small percentage of overall spending on education, … they are driving a lot of the new ideas for how to do things,” said Bryan C. Hassel, an educational researcher based in Chapel Hill, N.C., who wrote one of the papers. “So things that they fund that get popular may become the law of the land. The stakes are very high.”

‘Buckets Into the Sea’

On the threshold question of just how much money nonprofit charities donate to K-12 education each year, scholars involved in the AEI project agree that it is impossible to know for sure.

But drawing on survey data and an analysis of forms that nonprofit organizations file annually with the Internal Revenue Service, researcher Jay P. Greene concludes in one of the papers that some widely circulated estimates are way, way off.

Instead of the $10 billion annually that some have cited, he estimates that private giving—from sources ranging from the Gates Foundation to kindergarten bake sales—is running around $1.5 billion a year.

While not peanuts, that amount represents only about one-third of 1 percent of all spending on elementary and secondary education, says Mr. Greene, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“A system that spends more than $427 billion every year dwarfs the wealth of even the richest individuals, corporations, and foundations,” he writes in “Buckets Into the Sea: Why Philanthropy Isn’t Changing Schools, and How It Could,” a paper for this week’s conference.

For that reason, Mr. Greene argues, philanthropists with ambitions to make a lasting impact on education need to be smarter and braver than they’ve been so far.

“The only realistic strategy for reform by philanthropists is to leverage their private giving by attempting to redirect how future public expenditures are used,” he writes.

As matters stand, he says in a conclusion that some experts in the field dispute, the nation’s biggest givers to K-12 education are putting too much of their money into what he deems “low-leverage activities.”

Chief among those activities, Mr. Greene found, is professional development for teachers and administrators, which he argues should be paid for by districts themselves. Other examples he offers are donations to private schools and both general-purpose and special-purpose grants to public schools.

Philanthropists would get better mileage, he contends, by spending more on research and advocacy efforts that inform policy debates. Another high-leverage category, he says, are new types of public schools or administrative structures through which future public dollars will flow. Ditto for new organizations “that have the potential of altering the political activities of educators or government regulations affecting who can become an educator.”

William Porter, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, an organization based in Portland, Ore., said he had a mixed reaction to Mr. Greene’s study.

“I largely agree with his argument that those who seek to make a difference in education systems really need to be paying attention to policy,” Mr. Porter said.

“But not all philanthropy aspires to make that change,” he continued. “A lot of philanthropy is about supporting good work. It’s not designed to change the way systems operate or the policies that govern those systems.”

Outsize Influence

Mr. Greene’s study identifies some notable exceptions to the spending patterns that he criticizes. Chief among them are the two foundations that his research identified as the top givers to American precollegiate education: the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

The 30 foundations that gave the most to education together provided an estimated $650 million to K-12 education in 2002, the most recent year for which data were available, Mr. Greene estimates. More than a third of that, or $246 million, came from the Seattle-based foundation established by software mogul Bill Gates, the co-founder and chairman of Microsoft Inc., and his wife, Melinda.

Second on the list, with spending exceeding $77 million, was the Bentonville, Ark.-based Walton Foundation, which is financed by the fortune amassed by the founder of the Wal-Mart chain of discount stores.

Both foundations have spent heavily to help set up new types of publicly financed schools, and to a lesser extent, on research and advocacy of public policies aimed at fostering those alternatives.

The Walton Foundation has focused particularly on charter schools, which are independent public schools, and also has backed efforts to provide low-income students with tuition vouchers to attend private schools. While the Gates Foundation has given to charters and to private education as part of its broad initiative aimed at spurring major changes in American high schools, it has made major investments in efforts to create smaller, more personalized high schools directly run by school districts.

In a paper examining philanthropy aimed at expanding the extent and quality of educational choices—among both public and private schools—Mr. Hassel found that the impact of the Gates and Walton foundations was enormous.

Analyzing 2002 data for the 50 foundations that made the largest donations to K-12 education, he found that 23 percent, or $176 million, went to choice-related giving, not including an additional $106 million that went directly to private education.

Of that $176 million, the Gates and Walton foundations together accounted for 87 percent of the total, Mr. Hassel found. That means that the rest of the top 50 funders collectively steered only about 5 percent of their giving toward school choice, he said.

“Walton and Gates are such big funders that it makes it look like there’s a lot more widespread support than there is,” Mr. Hassel said.

Policy Work Pushed

In a separate paper, Andrew J. Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute argues that K-12 education donors as a group are missing the boat by spending too little on policy-related research and advocacy.

Based on Mr. Greene’s analysis, Mr. Rotherham estimates that the 30 largest donors funneled $77 million to research and advocacy in 2002, or 12 percent of the total.

Despite foundations’ widespread desire to foster change, he writes, “they are neglecting the very process by which we make and codify change for a publicly provided service such as education—the political and policy process.”

Still, Mr. Rotherham, who directs the Washington-based PPI’s 21st Century Schools Project, notes that some foundations focus exclusively on research, advocacy, or both. They include the Spencer Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Joyce Foundation, among others. (Pew provides funding for Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report.)

And although Mr. Rotherham opposes private school vouchers, he concludes that such philanthropies as Walton, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation have had a huge impact in that arena by backing “a range of legal, political, and direct-action strategies.”

Meanwhile, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution concludes in another paper that the foundation staff members who direct donors’ spending appear to hold views aligned with the progressive school of pedagogical thought and are therefore out of step with most parents and classroom teachers.

In their views on classroom discipline and basic academic skills, for example, foundation program officers typically agree more with education professors than the general public, Mr. Loveless contends, and that viewpoint may be hindering foundations’ impact.

“My general impression of philanthropies is that they have not been instrumental in school reform,” Mr. Loveless, who directs the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based think tank, said in an interview. “Perhaps part of the problem is that they are so far out of the mainstream on basic educational issues that this shapes the kinds of reforms they are trying to support.”

Labeling Questioned

His conclusions were based on a recent survey of 240 foundations active in education grantmaking, for which Mr. Loveless received a 53 percent response rate. He compared his results with those from previous polls by Public Agenda, a New York City opinion-research organization, particularly a 1997 survey focused on education professors.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education and an expert on education philanthropy, said last week that she had questions about Mr. Loveless’ conclusions.

“I think foundations vary tremendously, and to label them all as progressive is not accurate,” said Ms. Lagemann, a former president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation.

Those and other issues are sure to get an airing at the April 25 conference, which like the forthcoming book is titled “With the Best of Intentions: Lessons Learned in K-12 Education Philanthropy.”

As they do, the potential relevance of those lessons for the broader K-12 enterprise should not be lost, said Peter Frumkin, a professor of nonprofit management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the author of one of the conference papers.

With philanthropy sometimes viewed as “the leading point of the spear for school reform,” Mr. Frumkin said, “if you can figure out what’s been done well by philanthropy, you can also possibly point the way on what can be done well by government.”


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