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Education Funding Opinion

Foundations Invest in Public Education. Teachers Would Like the Money Spent These Ways

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 19, 2023 14 min read
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Today’s post begins a multipart series on how private foundations are using their monies now to impact schools and comparing those purposes to how educators think they should be spending those funds.

Personally, I would love it if some foundation put the same amount of money they are spending on some big typical education “initiative” into the pockets of teachers for them to use as they see fit in their classrooms—buying books for their students, providing snacks, going on supplemental field trips, etc. Then, after a year, see which strategy resulted in greater academic achievement, which would have multiple measures and not be limited to standardized-test scores.

In addition, I think it would be great if foundations paid large numbers of K-12 teachers to participate in advisory groups to recommend funding programs—and then actually listened to them!

Here’s what others think:

Support What Is Happening Now

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined The Leadership Academy in 2015 with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, curriculum designer, and coach and currently serves as the executive director, curriculum development and equity. She is the author of Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education: A Liberation Guide for Leaders of Color and can be found on Twitter @mriceboothe or by reading her newsletter:

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from power and resources,” says criminal-justice reform advocate Glenn E. Martin. Private foundations could more strategically identify solutions to intractable challenges if they support the great work that is already happening in classrooms, schools, and districts across the country.

Every school has a teacher who supports the development of lifelong learners consistently day after day. It is our responsibility to elevate these practices for others to learn from as opposed to always looking for the next best “catalytic” practice. Years of research have told us what works. This teacher may use innovative technology and materials or their deep knowledge of students and relationships to build a supportive learning environment. Successes like these can be multiplied if schools and districts are given the power and resources. This is the same for the principal and/or district-level equity officer who are rebuilding broken systems to improve, for example, how students are identified for advanced-level coursework like AP and honors.

Foundation support could also help leverage community voice in schools and districts. Many schools and districts have committees comprised of families, staff, and students. How these committees are used varies. Foundations can use their resources to support community-centered problem-solving strategies such as the National Equity Project’s Liberatory Design for Equity Process that keep the needs, voices, and perspectives of students and families at the center.

Finally, I see a need for foundations to support cross-sector collaborations. Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” School systems are part of a larger ecosystem, and that ecosystem contributes to the success of students.

When Anne Clark was the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, she brought together law enforcement, health services, housing, and other departments across the city for intentional conversations and action planning on how they could work together to meet the needs of the students they all had the responsibility for supporting. That regular cross-sector action planning led to systems-level changes across the city.

Foundations must be willing to look at the larger ecosystem and back the homegrown initiatives with resources to measure effectiveness as well as expansion.


Supporting Incremental Change

Yvette Rosario-Pérez is an instructional coach with 18 years of experience in education and was a 2022-2023 Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice (ITOC) Fellow. She’s passionate about culturally and linguistically trauma-informed pedagogy and can be found on Twitter @yvetterp2:

Real change in education starts first by recognizing what is causing the problems that students face today that impede their ability to learn. This, for some districts, is the hardest part. After discovering the cause of the problem, districts need to change the problematic systems and constantly evaluate whether or not the change is actually improving student outcomes. Especially for the most marginalized students. So, what’s causing the problems? Systemic racism.

What can private foundations do to support realistic, incremental change? My ideas are not new. In fact, many educators (people actually working in schools) have acknowledged these ideas for years. Yet, we are ignored. Especially BIPOC educators. The following ideas are interconnected and can have lasting, monumental benefits for all students. Foundations should make sure that their funding supports one or all of them:

Schools should be integrated; most school districts segregate—by way of housing. Many Black and Brown students attend schools with fewer resources (think: books, teachers, and talent) than their white peers in more affluent parts of town.

Directly connected to the idea of integrated schools is reducing classroom sizes. Ideally, no more than 16 students in K-8 and no more than 18 in grades 9-12.

Then there is the issue of staffing. First, districts need to retain, recruit, and hire BIPOC teachers. Students deserve to be taught by educators who not only look like them but understand the beauty of their diverse cultures. Then, school districts need to train all teachers in culturally, linguistically, and trauma-informed pedagogy.

This country’s educational system is white-centered and built on our racist history. It’s one reason why Black and Brown students have historically been denied an appropriate education. Integrating schools while also building teacher capacity in culturally, linguistically, and trauma-informed pedagogy are the first steps in changing education to improve learning for the most marginalized students. Integrating schools is a crucial first step in making education not only equitable but a space for teaching and learning where all students and educators feel seen, heard, and valued for who they are. A place where everyone can be in community, where there is joyful learning about society, people, and culture to help students build empathy and cultural awareness.

Integration alone isn’t sufficient and actually can be harmful. For integrated schools to deliver a better education for all their students, educators must do the hard work of learning about systemic racism, how it harms BIPOC students, and what to do to change it. This work is never ending and always evolving. It requires a constant and continuous commitment from all stakeholders. This work is necessary to bring about incremental, continuous improvement in education.

Decreasing class sizes seems to be a no brainer, yet many people in educational spaces say that the research doesn’t support this claim. Why might that be? Keeping class sizes big serves whom? Would people still say class size doesn’t matter if all schools were integrated? I don’t believe so. I work in a school district where the majority of students are BIPOC, and the average class size in my elementary school is 20. Yet, in neighboring, predominantly white schools, the average elementary class size is 13 (CT School Report Cards). If we are going to make real, lasting educational change, we have to look at the facts and have honest conversations about the impact of the data. BIPOC educators should be at the center of these conversations. Their voices need to be heard.

Research shows that achievement increases for students of color when they receive instruction from teachers of color. Therefore, there’s a real need for districts to gain a better understanding of how to retain, recruit, and hire BIPOC educators. Systemic racism can explain why there are so few BIPOC educators. To support consistent, incremental improvement in education, we have to start caring for and improving work conditions for teachers of color. Changing the systems that have created the problems is where the work must begin. Making schools a safe space for BIPOC educators to be in community with others will foster the type of environment where teaching and learning are joyful. It requires a commitment to doing identity work, to continuous learning and interrogating the oppressive systems that permeate schools.


‘Invest in Existing Structure’

Diana Laufenberg is a former teacher who currently serves as the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting schools to become more inquiry-driven and project-based. She currently lives near the family farm where she grew up in rural Wisconsin:

There are no silver bullets in education. That is a fact. If there was, we’d have addressed all the challenges and it would be nothing but sunshine and roses. This is not the case in modern education.

The money is such an interesting conundrum. In a perfect world, these folks would stop trying to create their own foundations with a giant overhead but rather invest in existing structures that support students and their families. I think MacKenzie Scott is getting it the most “right” in her approach to charitable giving by sending organizational windfalls to organizations already doing the work, so that the existing organization can continue to do good work. In her Medium post from 2021 Seeding by Ceding she writes,

“Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose. Many reported that this trust significantly increased the impact of the gift. There is nothing new about amplifying gifts by yielding control. People have been doing it in living rooms and classrooms and workplaces for thousands of years. It empowers receivers by making them feel valued and by unlocking their best solutions. Generosity is generative. Sharing makes more.”

This elegantly simple approach to giving could have a monumental impact on the stability and efficacy of existing organizations poised to effect change within the communities they already are committed to serve.

A second idea, which is less simple, is for a foundation to support organized and specific state-level lobbying by practicing teachers. I’m imagining a one- to two-year fellowship that teachers would cycle through to work on a day-to-day basis to bring the real stories and issues from the classroom to the statehouses. Perhaps there is another version where they would lobby on their summer breaks if they didn’t want to take a break from the classroom. There are many ill-formed and wild ideas about what is happening in American schools, and I think having a representative range of teachers ready to bring reality to the statehouse would be another transformative change that could bring about incremental change to help students.

The third idea is one that is not new but is the most obvious to anyone in public education right now. The social safety net that protects children from the effects of homelessness, food insecurity, and the ravages of poverty will always make school a more effective place for learning. The children need a predictable place to live, eat, and thrive. Any initiative or program that systemically delivers that support would have a dramatic effect on the lives of children. This is not hard to academically argue but near impossible to consistently deliver on in the political climate in which we currently work to educate the future of America.


Look at the Research

Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., is a 30-year veteran educator. She has taught in private and public school settings and is passionate about literacy, educational technology, and ed-tech coaching. She currently serves as the K-12 director at a nonprofit organization:

It’s terrific that philanthropists want to help fix our educational system. As teachers, we know that public education here in the U.S. is broken, and funding is at the base of many issues. Until all schools are funded appropriately, we have a limit on what we can change concerning instruction. So, let’s look at what research says will help our students:

  • Fund language-rich pre-K programs: We know that funding for pre-K is limited. Students typically attend from more affluent families who can afford to pay for the child to participate. Longitudinal research shows that children attending these programs are more likely to graduate and get better jobs. While that may be partially due to the family’s support, regional efforts show us that participation in quality preschool programs results in students arriving in kindergarten with better skills. Funding should also be made available for technology necessary to deliver high-quality programs to students in rural areas or where there are transportation challenges.

  • Fund additional teaching positions: Class size matters. Research shows that students in smaller classes in the early grades reap significant benefits through grade 8. Current funding strategies for public schools rely on tax dollars to fund most teaching positions. Areas where the tax base is low must depend on state and national subsidies where they exist. Allowing these communities to staff their schools regardless of their ability to fund it themselves would be a game-changer for many students.


Thanks to Mary, Yvette, Diana, and Ruth for contributing their thoughts!

You might also be interested in The Best Resources For Learning About The Role Of Private Foundations In Education Policy.

The new question of the week is:

It’s not unusual for private foundations to want to fund education projects that they believe to be “moonshots”—something they want to dramatically change schools. Most haven’t had much luck with that. What are ways you think they could use their money to support realistic incremental change that could genuinely help our students?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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