On the heels of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively rendering affirmative action in the college admissions process unconstitutional, it is important to recognize the role of our K-12 education system in preparing students for higher education, especially disadvantaged students who may need extra support.
As many students, parents and educators begin planning for a return to school this fall, philanthropists, policymakers and community leaders across the country continue to work tirelessly to support an essential facet of education: education freedom, or the ability of parents and students to select a school that best aligns with their needs, preferences and values.
Rather than being limited to their assigned public school, families ought to have the option to explore various educational institutions, such as charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and magnet schools. This freedom to choose between varied options empowers parents to find an environment that caters to their child’s unique strengths and challenges, enhancing their learning experience and, ultimately, career and life outcomes.
Many organizations and leaders, working in conjunction with private philanthropy, have focused on ensuring increased access to better quality schools for quite some time. They have sought to offer alternatives to the public school system’s status quo, focusing on excellence and empowerment at a time when the Nation’s Report Card, the largest nationally representative assessment of what students across the United States know and can do, shows a steady decline in academic performance.
While grantmaking approaches and models should continue to vary, donors working to advance education freedom are driven by a shared belief in the transformative power of learning and the conviction that every child deserves the opportunity to receive a quality education, regardless of their socioeconomic background or ZIP code.
Below are a handful of investment categories that philanthropists have prioritized in recent years that deserve renewed attention considering the Court’s decision:
- Address the root cause: Disadvantaged students, including minority students, often face barriers that limit their educational opportunities. By investing in programs and initiatives that target economic disparities and provide access to vital resources, funders can create a more accessible and equitable education landscape that benefits students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Expect to see philanthropists focusing increasingly on socioeconomic, as opposed to race-based, factors.
- Listen to parents and community stakeholders: Parents are invaluable stakeholders in the education process. They understand the unique needs of their children and have a vested interest in their academic and overall life success. By listening to parents and community stakeholders and involving them in decision-making processes, we can create learning environments that align with the aspirations of families. Many funders have embraced parental feedback and support innovations that cater to the diverse needs and interests of students, ensuring that the education system responds to the expectations of the community it serves.
The Yass Prize is a remarkable organization that emerged in 2021 with a mission to support and celebrate high-quality education providers who remained open and helped address challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools across the nation grappled with closures and disruptions, the funders behind the prize recognized and honored institutions that found innovative ways to continue delivering a best-in-class education to students. The organization’s commitment to highlighting problem solvers in communities has created a sense of resilience and determination in the education sector.
- Replace “equity” with “agency”: Many funders have considered redefining the discourse around educational equity. Putting the focus back on equality and empowerment can be transformative for the students and families in the system. By embracing agency and self-determination, students can take ownership of their educational journey. Many donors will likely encourage initiatives and projects that emphasize empowerment.
Vertex Partnership Academies is an organization that exemplifies the transformative power of placing “agency” at the center of the education experience. This first-of-its-kind network of character-based, International Baccalaureate public charter high schools is dedicated to equality of opportunity, individual dignity and common humanity. Its unique offerings include a “Pathways to Power” class, which teaches students about “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” financial literacy and time management instruction and help with résumé writing and relationship skills.
Leaders also emphasize the “success sequence,” reinforcing the rewards of graduating from high school, getting a job and getting married — before having children. Vertex founder Ian Rowe says when he started teaching the success sequence at his former charter network, he got “huge pushback” from staff who said, “We can’t do this. We might be insulting parents.” Actually, Rowe said, what he heard from parents was, “Thank God someone is teaching this.”
- Encourage multiple pathways to economic security: Traditional pathways to economic security, such as a college education, remain valuable options. However, the rise of apprenticeships, vocational training and alternative educational paths offer necessary and rewarding alternatives for many students. By supporting diverse educational pathways, philanthropists help students discover their unique talents and passions, providing them with the tools to succeed in various fields. There has been an increasing amount of interest in this area of giving, and we will likely see that interest continue to increase over time.
Organizations like Merit America provide affordable, short-term, skills-based pathways for students to move from low-wage roles into better paying and more fulfilling careers. Merit America also helps students gain an understanding of their strengths through individualized mentorship, mapping new skills to in-demand jobs and an ability to experiment quickly with career pathways.
As the college admissions landscape prepares for a transformation, the winds of change also present an opportunity for a much-needed transformation within the K-12 education system. As we approach a new academic year, it is essential to recognize the indispensable role of private philanthropists in shaping the education landscape through their unwavering support of education freedom.
The Roundtable’s philanthropic community’s commitment to education freedom will continue to be guided by a shared belief in the profound impact of learning and the unwavering conviction that every child deserves access to a quality education. The sector will likely make more room for this perspective now, and the future success of our country depends on it.