Education Funding

George Lucas’ Promise to Invest in Education Prompts Speculation

By Katie Ash — November 13, 2012 5 min read
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George Lucas’ announcement that a majority of the proceeds from the sale of his film company will be funneled into education philanthropy has sparked speculation among educators about where the new influx of money might be directed.

The creator of “Star Wars” has a history of involvement in education, and it may provide some clues for those who hope to gain financial support for innovative ideas and for those who believe particular topics in education, such as technology or the arts, need additional emphasis.

Chris Tebben, the executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Grantmakers for Education, a membership organization for public and private education-related philanthropies, said traditionally philanthropists give to education in areas in which they themselves have been successful.

For Mr. Lucas, a pioneer in technology and digital animatronics in his filmmaking and a gifted storyteller, that could mean bolstering technology, interactivity, and student-centered learning in education, as well as communications and storytelling skills, Ms. Tebben said.

“Tapping into some of the drivers of what makes for powerful, interest-driven learning and learners’ motivation—you can really see how some of the things that [Mr. Lucas] really excelled at could inform a grantmaking portfolio,” she said.

Need for Creativity

Bolstering arts education and creative thinking in K-12 classrooms is what LeiLani Cauthen, the vice president and publisher of the Center for Digital Education, based in Folsom, Calif., hopes the money might go toward.

George Lucas created an education foundation in 1991 to highlight best practices.

"[Mr. Lucas’] mind is one that we need to emulate,” she said. “One of America’s greatest economic powerhouses is in Hollywood,” and today’s schools are not preparing students for the jobs available there, Mr. Cauthen said.

Creative and innovative thinking in today’s students will be essential to the U.S. economy’s global competitiveness, she said.

“It’s my firm belief that education’s primary charter for the next 20 years needs to be not just STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], but STEAM [those subjects plus the arts],” she said. “Add arts back in because that ability to think nonlinearly and play—just play—America needs that back.”

The $4.05 billion sale of Lucasfilm Ltd. to the Walt Disney Co., announced Nov. 1, and Mr. Lucas’ stated intention to increase his education giving, have brought fresh attention to the work of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Mr. Lucas established the foundation in 1991 with the goal of documenting and highlighting research-based strategies to improve K-12 learning. It is an operational foundation, which means it does not award grants, and its content is distributed through the website Edutopia.

“Our mission is to show people what great education can look like,” said Cindy Johanson, the executive director of the foundation, based in San Rafael, Calif. “We look for innovations, successful school models, and strategies, and through the power of media, especially video, we help show people what real strategies can look like.”

‘Our Primary Goal’

Edutopia, which produced a print magazine until 2010, provides an online platform to disseminate best instructional practices, with a focus on strategies that lend themselves to being replicated and scaled up, said Ms. Johanson.

Top U.S. Foundations Awarding Grants

For Elementary and Secondary Education

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: The Foundation Center, 2012

“In education, often success can be isolated within the four walls of a classroom or within a specific district or school,” she said. “Our primary goal is to find those successes, shine a spotlight on them, and inspire [others] to improve without getting caught up in politics.”

Edutopia has focused on six core strategies for transforming learning in schools: comprehensive assessment, integrated studies, project-based learning, social and emotional learning, teacher development, and technology integration.

Recently, the foundation has also been collaborating with researchers to find and showcase evidence-based instructional practices that bolster learning, Ms. Johanson said. It partners with the University of Washington’s college of education in those efforts.

“I think the money is going to continue to maintain the vision that the George Lucas Educational Foundation already has and give it security in that vision going forward,” Anthony Armstrong, a history teacher at Del Mar Middle School in Tibron, Calif., and a member of the National Advisory Council for the foundation, said of the new funds. "[Mr. Lucas’] current practice of highlighting innovative approaches—I don’t think that’s going to change. If anything, it’s going to be increased.”

However, it is not yet known if the new influx of money will be distributed through the George Lucas Educational Foundation or if a new philanthropy will be founded to distribute the funds. The exact amount of money from the Lucasfilm sale that will go to education philanthropy is also unknown.

Ms. Tebben, from Grantmakers for Education, said a private foundation typically pays out about 5 percent of its total endowment per year, which means that $4 billion would likely equate to about $20 million of giving per year.

Focus on Technology

According to statistics from the Foundation Center, a New York City-based organization that maintains databases around philanthropy, the top philanthropic donor to K-12 education in 2010 (the most recent statistics available) was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave roughly $208.5 million.

Gates was followed by the Walton Family Foundation, which awarded about $109.5 million in grants that year. (Both foundations help support certain areas of coverage by Education Week.)

The next largest K-12 givers were the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, at some $58 million; the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, at nearly $54.9 million; and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, at about $35.3 million.

Many observers speculate that education technology will be one of the areas targeted by the new funds because of Mr. Lucas’ deep interest in that area, which is apparent not only through the work of the Lucas Foundation and Edutopia, but also through Mr. Lucas’ original vision of what the foundation would be.

Ms. Johanson said that when Mr. Lucas began the foundation, he envisioned creating technology for schools through his donations, but quickly realized that schools were not set up to facilitate and use the types of technology he was interested in building. He decided instead to focus on highlighting innovative teaching approaches that supported the use of technology.

John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now!, a national digital learning advocacy group based in Washington, said the George Lucas Educational Foundation was one of the first philanthropies to invest in digital learning technology.

“They really staked out an area in terms of thinking about new approaches with assessment and thinking about investing in teacher development,” said Mr. Bailey, a co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm for investors, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs. “I think it’s great that they’re going to be putting more money toward that.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as George Lucas’ Promise to Invest in Education Prompts Speculation


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