K-12 Education

Notable contributions to K 12 education from the Philanthropy Hall of Fame

From Philanthropy, Winter 2013, “American History’s Great Philanthropists

Julius Rosenwald

During the summer of 1910, Julius Rosenwald read the autobiography of the great black educator Booker T. Washington. The part-owner of Sears, Roebuck was strongly affected, and within a year he and Washington were visiting each other’s homes. To celebrate his 50th birthday in 1912, Rosenwald gave $25,000 to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.


Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington

Washington shrewdly set aside part of it to launch an experiment—a $2,100 effort to build new schools in parts of Alabama where little or no education was being offered to rural blacks. Washington documented progress on the schools with photos and careful accounting, including descriptions of the community enthusiasm the erection of the new schools created among locals of all races.

Rosenwald was captivated. During this Jim Crow era, the educational offerings to African Americans, and many residents of the rural South in general, were miserably inadequate. Soon he and Washington were ramping up the program, eventually building schools all across the South over more than 20 years. There were correlated efforts to train teachers to serve in the new schools, and funds to provide libraries and workshops for students. These facilities would never have materialized absent this aggressive philanthropy.

Rosenwald insisted that beneficiaries do their own large part in improving their lot. And despite their limited resources, thousands of rural black communities succeeded in pulling together the funds to match Rosenwald’s gift. Sharecroppers set aside a “Rosenwald Patch” when they planted their cotton. Innumerable pie sales and fried chicken suppers were organized to raise matching funds. During construction, many black families donated materials or invested sweat equity via their labor.

Retrospective calculations show that, in the end, black families contributed slightly more than Rosenwald to the schools—16 percent of total costs, versus 15 percent from his fund. And leveraging the remainder from state and county education authorities was a game-changing triumph. Washington credited Rosenwald with starting the entire program of state funding for black education in the South. And during this segregated era, that in turn initiated additional resources to improve substandard white schools.

By 1932, the year Julius died, an astonishing 4,977 Rosenwald schools, and 380 complementary buildings, had been erected in every Southern locale with a significant black population. Fully 35 percent of all black children in the South (and 27 percent of black children period) were educated that year in a Rosenwald school. America would be a very different, and lesser, nation absent his philanthropic inspiration.

Don Fisher

Don Fisher was among the very first donors to find and fund the most promising ideas and K–12 education programs of the last 50 years. In 1995, Fisher stepped down as CEO of the Gap, the upscale clothing retailer he founded in San Francisco. As he mulled over ways to improve K–12 education, he discovered the “Knowledge Is Power Program,” or KIPP, then a small program at a middle school in Houston and another in the Bronx. Over the next decade, Fisher donated more than $70 million to KIPP, which now includes 125 schools in 20 states, and produces some of the most impressive results chronicled among low-income students. Recognizing that the KIPP network would succeed only if it could recruit talented educators, Fisher turned his attention to Teach for America, eventually donating more than $100 million to the organization that entices some of America’s best students into teaching careers. To make sure that excellent charter schools grew beyond the occasional curiosity, he co-founded the Charter School Growth Fund, which makes early-stage investments in high-promise charter school networks. Fisher was not the biggest funder of education reform in the last century, but he was certainly among the most consequential.


Bernice Bishop

Bernice Pauahi Bishop was a Hawaiian princess, the last direct descendant of the Royal House of Kamehameha. With her husband, Charles Reed Bishop, she is remembered as one of the most remarkable philanthropists in the history of the Islands. Her carefully constructed bequest, faithfully executed by Charles, endowed the Kamehameha Schools, which to this day specialize in educating the children of native Hawaiians. In November 1887, 39 students formed the first class at the boys’ school; in 1894, 35 students filled out the first class at the girls’ school. Today the schools have campuses on Oahu, Hawaii, and Maui, educating nearly 7,000 children annually. Thus did Charles and Bernice Pauahi Bishop, childless themselves, become the greatest patrons of Hawaii’s children.

John T. Walton

John T. Walton served in combat with the Green Berets during the Vietnam War, but the great battle of his life was reforming American K–12 education. One of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s four children, he founded the American Education Reform Foundation in 1991, which ultimately became one of three organizations that merged to form the Alliance for School Choice. With financier Ted Forstmann, he launched the Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1998. Each man pledged $50 million to underwrite scholarships that would enable low-income students to attend private schools, an effort that funded 40,000 scholarships and intended to spur interest in school vouchers for low-income families. An early backer of charter schools, he led the Walton Family Foundation to provide seed capital of up to $250,000 each to more than 500 charter schools. Through it all, he remained humble. Once, on an unannounced visit to a charter school, he asked the principal how he could be of service. The principal didn’t recognize him, and told Walton that the bathrooms needed cleaning. “Where’s the mop?” he asked. The fourth-wealthiest person in America then spent 25 minutes swabbing the floors, happy to help.

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