Last month, students, parents, teachers and organizations celebrated School Choice Week, shining a light on the importance of choice in education. Philanthropy Roundtable is continuing that conversation by recognizing the work of one organization, the VELA Education Fund, that is investing in thousands of school choice entrepreneurs, people who are innovating outside of the traditional education system, in communities across the country. They are parents, teachers and community leaders who responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on education with “permissionless innovation”.
This unconventional approach to investing in education stems from a belief that innovation rather than reform is the answer to the intractable issues in the American education system. Quite simply, this means investing in people and programs that are trying something outside of the traditional education system rather than working tirelessly within it.
Of the organization’s mission, VELA’s president, Meredith Olson, says: “Every single person should have the ability to pursue an education that works for them so they can become the best version of themselves. That’s going to be different for everyone. At VELA, we believe that while transformation within a system is possible, it’s awfully difficult. So, where we invest is in permissionless innovation. We believe innovation can be a catalyst for broader transformational change.”
VELA is supporting this innovation by investing in people who are solving problems they see in their own neighborhoods and communities. Their process is straightforward:
- Identify entrepreneurs doing the work on the ground.
- Increase awareness of their work and make it accessible to more people.
- Strengthen the community of education entrepreneurs by connecting them so they can leverage one another’s knowledge.
They offer two types of grants: micro-grants for early-stage ideas and bridge grants for programs that are further down the road in implementation. For example, a VELA bridge grant helped Prenda, a tuition-free micro-school, expand from Arizona to a second state, opening the door for more low-income families and rural community members to access its services.
The goal for VELA is to expand choice by introducing diversity in model and approach. The organization does this through a trust-based giving approach that allows the grantee more flexibility to test innovative models by beginning a relationship with the belief that the entrepreneur on the ground has the best knowledge about their community.
Olson explains: “When you invest in a way that gives trust and power to the entrepreneurs, and you believe that they know the values and priorities of the families they are serving, something really powerful happens. You are essentially saying that you believe they have tapped into serving their community in a meaningful way, and you want to help them do that even more. Then you start to grow almost virally.”
Along with every other aspect of society, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected education policy profoundly, and school choice is no exception. In the 2020-2021 academic year, over one million students left traditional public schools as charter school enrollment surged and states expanded or created new school choice programs. In the last two years, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas and Ohio have signed direct-to-family micro grants for learning into law. This expansion has led some to refer to 2021 as “The Year of School Choice”. VELA is well positioned to support this newly found momentum.
VELA’s work rewards entrepreneurs, those who take personal responsibility for making the change they want to see. In so doing, they are expanding liberty and opportunity in the School Choice arena for families across the country.