Ed Funders Need to Think Bigger About Systemic Change. Here Are Some Ideas


Philanthropy’s quest to improve K-12 education feels stuck in a rut. Some of the biggest funders on the scene remain devoted to a reform strategy that has so far failed to yield transformative change, while a range of other funder-backed efforts aren’t yet operating at a scale likely to produce major breakthroughs.

“There’s no dramatic change,” Bill Gates told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last year, summing up the results of his own foundation's efforts, which have entailed spending billions of dollars over 15 years.

Meanwhile, though, philanthropy’s muscular efforts to influence K-12 policy have generated a strong backlash—helping fuel a highly polarized education debate, as well as rising public distrust of foundations.

It isn’t surprising that funders can’t claim glowing success after many years of rising giving. Education is a famous graveyard of philanthropists, in part because of the size of this sector. To take one example, New York City’s public school system spends as much money in a month as all the top ed reform funders spend in a year. Nationally, K-12 is a $600 billion enterprise that is highly decentralized. Funders are wielding a peashooter in comparison.

That said, ed funders have limited their effectiveness by piling too many chips on select reform strategies and, even more so, by failing to think big enough. Charter schools are a great example. Even if you believe that charters deliver superior results, funders are looking at a long, tough slog to push a reform that’s proven difficult to scale, yet is not having the competitive catalytic effect on traditional schools that proponents had hoped. Foundations like Walton and Broad now face decades of trudging to bring more charters to high-poverty urban areas. They certainly have the resources to sustain that march, but you’d think they’d also be casting around for some other, more strategic levers to pull that could speed up change and reach more kids.

Overall, it's striking what's not on the agenda of education funders these days. For all the talk of systemic reform and disrupting the status quo, most ed funders have been reluctant to look at the bigger societal picture of why so many students struggle. As the scholar Larry Cuban writes in a recent edited book on the new education philanthropy, donor-pushed reforms have “concentrated on schools rather than the economic and social structures outside of schools that freeze institutional inequalities into place.”

It’s easy to understand why funders have focused on changing schools, which seems a lot more doable than changing society. But as the limits of that narrow approach have become clearer, and as inequality has drawn new attention, now is a good moment for education funders to think anew about what a broader agenda for systemic change might look like. Here are a few strategies for funders to consider.

Reforming How Public Schools Are Funded

One of the most familiar and obvious systemic problems in education is how the U.S. funds its schools, with a heavy reliance on local property taxes. Thanks to that set-up, unusual among advanced countries, big resource inequities are baked into the education system. As a report last year by the Education Trust stated:

 ... funding inequities are devastatingly large. The highest poverty districts in our country receive about $1,200 less per student than the lowest poverty districts. The differences are even larger — roughly $2,000 per student — between districts serving the most students of color and those serving the fewest… These gaps add up. For a middle school with 500 students, for example, a $1,200 funding gap per student means a shortage of $600,000 per year. For a 1,000-student high school, it means $1.2 million in missing resources.

Quite apart from these disparities in public dollars, there are big disparities in private funding, too, with affluent school districts pulling in lots of philanthropic support. My son’s school district, for example, has a private foundation that raises over $3 million a year, money used to hire scores of extra teaching assistants, among other things. 

Ed reformers often say that more money is not the key to better schools, and there’s some truth to this, given how much is spent per pupil in some truly dismal school districts. Also, we do know that the same poor children can perform much better in some schools than others, even controlling for resources. Still, most parents operate on the assumption that money does matter, angling to live in better funded school districts. Funders should pay more attention to that fact.

There’s a long history of efforts to reduce funding disparities in public schools and adopt more centralized, equitable financing mechanisms. Some funders have been involved in this, especially in New York State, where there’s been a concerted organizing push for equitable financing. But most funders steer far away from this area. I won’t pretend equalizing financing is an easy road. But it’s a key reform that needs to be achieved in the long term. Among other things, many of the advanced countries the U.S. will be competing with in the decades ahead use smarter ways to finance their schools and, more broadly, develop human capital. It’s crazy for America’s schools to rely on a patchwork mix of local and state funding the way we do.

With their deep pockets and proven appetite for political combat, today’s top ed reformers could make major new headway in this area, which has long frustrated reformers. Or perhaps a new funder could enter this space in a big way. Financing litigation is the most obvious strategy here, but there are others.

Challenging School and Residential Segregation

Today, U.S. schools are nearly as segregated as when Brown v. Board was decided in 1954, and in some places, more segregated. Spend time in Westchester County, where I grew up, and you’ll see how this plays out. Most of the black kids in the county go to less well-funded schools with virtually no white kids in places like Mt. Vernon and Yonkers. That same pattern holds in many other places across the nation.

Brown v. Board, you'll recall, was partly informed by research that documented the damage inflicted on children of color who attend segregated schools. We now have tons of additional knowledge regarding why segregation is bad, especially when it plays out against a backdrop of school funding disparities. Yet I can’t think of a single major foundation that is actively and explicitly attacking the problem of school segregation. You can kind of understand why, given the explosive politics around this issue and past disappointments. Also, tackling school segregation often requires going after the tough underlying problem of residential segregation, which determines where kids live and go to school.

As we’ve reported, exclusionary zoning rules play a central role in keeping poor families out of more affluent suburbs with better public schools. Such zoning blocks the construction of more affordable multi-unit housing that could offer an entry point for lower income renters who want their kids to grow up in better communities.

There are a lot of ways for funders to challenge residential segregation, which is supposed to be illegal under the Fair Housing Act. But few funders have been interested in this issue. I get that. It’s another tough one for philanthropy to address, for sure. But if funders really want to think bigger about systemic reform, residential segregation patterns can’t be ignored.

Race has re-entered the national conversation in a big way since Ferguson, and that’s a good thing. Now it needs to come back into the education conversation.

Offsetting Poverty Effects, I: Stable Housing

A key reason that reform funders have focused at the school level is because we know that poor kids perform much better in some schools or with some teachers than they do in other situations. Thus, the logic goes, improving schools alone should be able to deliver transformative results for America’s low-income kids.

In fact, though, many experts have long argued that out-of-school factors related to poverty are the biggest reason that low-income students do so poorly. This point will be intuitive to any parent who has ever shopped around for schools. Take my city of Santa Monica, for example, which has a diverse school district, with excellent and well-funded schools that rank among the best in Los Angeles. Still, there are vast disparities in student achievement. The poor kids, mostly Latino, do much worse than the more affluent kids.

No matter how good a school is, many poor kids still live with single parents in unstable homes in dangerous neighborhoods, often going without such basics as proper nutrition and eyeglasses. A growing body of research suggest that poverty can produce lasting negative effects on children’s cognitive development. A 2015 report on poor children in New Orleans summed things up this way:

 Children in poverty are much more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect, and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship. This kind of chronic stress causes prolonged activation of the stress response system, which in turn can disrupt the development of brain architecture, leading to lifelong difficulties in learning, memory, and self-regulation.

While many ed funders are reluctant to tackle poverty writ large, housing is one specific area where they might focus to achieve positive results for children. Research shows that unstable housing situations are a major obstacle to stable schooling for kids. When poor parents constantly lose their leases, kids are jerked around, often changing schools. Living in crowded or difficult circumstances with relatives can also be hugely distracting for kids.

A number of foundations have long considered this issue, including the Gates Foundation, as we’ve reported. Last year, the CEO of the foundation, Susan Desmond-Hellman, wrote on the Impatient Optimists blog that a "stable place to call home" is one of the "few things that every child needs to lead a healthy, productive life." Gates is doing some interesting work at the nexus of housing and education, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, and other efforts are also afoot to break down the silos between these obviously related areas. But housing is not yet on the radar of most top education funders. It should be.

Offsetting Poverty Effects, II: Involved Fathers

As every parent knows, you need all hands on deck to shepherd kids through school. Whether it’s helping with homework or reinforcing discipline, or just getting them there and back, schooling a child is a two-parent job. Yet too often, many fathers are absent from the lives of their children and their children’s education. Large-scale and successful efforts to bring fathers back in could yield real dividends for student achievement—particularly as part of a broader strategy of boosting parental engagement in schooling, which research has long shown pays big dividends. In short, this is another specific leverage point for funders to focus on in combating the negative poverty effects on education.

We recently reported on the work that a number of funders are doing in this area, with good results. Kellogg is the most notable player, here, but other major foundations have also been involved, like Annie E. Casey and F.M. Kirby. Still, we were struck by the number of funders who aren’t backing fatherhood work who should be. In particular, such work is a great fit for many of the conservative or centrist funders that now fuel charters and other ed reform efforts, since these funders often believe that more personal responsibility and self-reliance are keys to social progress. Well, here’s an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.

Offsetting Poverty Effects, III: Jobs and Income

As we report often, quite a few funders are working to increase the supply of good jobs, boost people’s skills, and also raise wages by updating labor regulations. But top education funders should also look at what they might do in this area. While these funders may feel that economic issues are too far afield from their main mandate to boost student achievement, research and common sense suggests the opposite is true: Parents’ job prospects and earnings crucially affect how well kids do in school. Among other things, parents who boost their earnings can move to more affluent communities with better schools. There may be no better way to promote school choice than to boost parental income and geographic mobility. 

There’s a lot of possible ways that ed funders could get into work on jobs and income—too many to discuss here. Rather, the larger point is that these funders need to broaden their thinking about what role they play in helping students advance.


This is obviously a big topic, and other people will favor a different set of priorities aimed at broadening today’s philanthropic quest to boost student achievement. Others, too, might well inject a more pointed analysis of why so many education funders don’t look at the broader inequities in our society. I’ve skipped such a discussion here, since I and others have written elsewhere about the limitations of philanthropy in tackling inequality. Rich people, unsurprisingly, are not so attuned to challenging an economic status quo in which they have thrived.

Still, I’m not among those who question the motives of wealthy philanthropists involved in K-12 education. I believe their hearts are in the right place and they do want to make things better for America’s poorest kids. Now, they just need to move outside their comfort zones to think more boldly about how to do that.