How Philanthropists Can Cultivate an Era of Excellence in K-12 Education

Philanthropy Roundtable supports philanthropists working to promote K-12 school choice. We seek to eliminate the barriers families face when finding a great school and work to promote innovative options that expand educational opportunity. Additionally, we support philanthropists working in higher education who are interested in structuring productive initiatives within existing institutions and supporting innovative models that challenge the status quo.

In a piece written over the summer, Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes, “Education reform is alive and well, even if the Washington consensus is dead for now.” The Washington consensus refers to the bipartisan education reform coalition among political elites that spans the ideological spectrum dating back to the Clinton era. Petrilli is correct. As students fill classrooms this fall, education reform is alive and well thanks to the tireless work of philanthropists and nonprofits who have used the last couple of years as an opportunity to cut through the noise and target investment in the following key areas:

Growing great schools: The pandemic accelerated the long-standing need for more innovative school models that offer increased flexibility and better serve students and families. Below are just two examples of organizations working to meet the demand.

  • Charter School Growth Fund: The Growth Fund identifies the country’s best public charter schools, funds their expansion, and helps increase their impact. The organization has created over 585,000 new seats in charter schools since its inception in 2005. Its support of educational leaders and entrepreneurs seeking to grow successful public charter schools helps ensure every student has access to a high-quality school.
  • Cadence Learning: A full-fledged online learning program for school districts, community groups and charter networks, Cadence is on a mission to accelerate learning, share innovations from the nation’s top-performing urban schools and offer a new model for effective teaching. The program is free for organizations with under 5,000 students and at a low cost for larger ones. Philanthropic partners like the Girard Foundation provided start-up funds for the national effort in 2020 and actively recruited 2,000 students from Southern California schools to participate in the program.

Expanding parental engagement: The desire for partnerships between parents and educators and transparency in curricula is growing, and arguably, here to stay. Organizations like the two listed below are working to give parents a say in their children’s education:

  • American Federation for Children: The organization works to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children. It creates materials that showcase the progress of the school choice movement throughout the year, state by state. Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2021 Simon-DeVos Prize winner Bill Oberndorf supports this organization, which has given 663,000 students the ability to access educational options using vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts.
  • Families Empowered: This Texas-based nonprofit helps families understand and navigate the school choices available to them in their communities. Families Empowered provides parents with free, credible, third-party data about local options, both private and public. It also supports them in finding top-performing schools that best suit their children’s needs.

Focusing on student outcomes: It is easy to make schools a proxy for hashing out the social issues we have as a diverse, ever-evolving country. But, for the sake of maintaining our competitive advantage in the global economy, it is critical those undertaking education reform keep the end goal in mind: students hitting key performance indicators. Do they have what they need to perform? Do teachers have what they need to set students up for success? Benchmarking, high-quality instructional materials and teacher support systems are all areas in continued need of attention and resourcing.

Cultivating local solutions: Historically, America has solved its most complex social issues at the community level first. This has been true of every major social reform movement from the American Revolution of the 1770s all the way to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. A tried and true practice in international development work, the preference for local solutions assumes much of the capacity for problem-solving is found outside of a centralized government, and that individuals and communities have agency in the problem-solving process. Funders like the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation have chosen to support micro schools as a way to encourage a more local approach to education. In an interview with the Roundtable earlier this year, foundation President and CEO Abby Spencer Moffat said of a micro school, “Mysa is filling a critical need for families frustrated by one-size-fits-all education models, yet uses technology flexible enough to map student success against more traditional public and charter school measures. … And the pandemic demonstrated the incredible benefits of using technology to help customize learning. While other models scrambled to adapt, Mysa’s inherent flexibility helped it thrive and grow.”

Thankfully, due to the generous spirit of Americans, K-12 education continues to be one of the popular areas for philanthropic funding, receiving roughly one-quarter of total giving in 2021. The days of the Washington consensus may be over, but that simply signals the dawning of a new era. Perhaps it is time to coin a new phrase to summarize this movement in education reform. Perhaps we can call it the Era of Excellence.

To learn more about the organizations featured in this blog or to recommend a high-quality organization cultivating excellence in education, please visit the Opportunity Playbook or reach out to Erica Haines, program director.