Can Philanthropy Save our Educational System?

Peter Buffet’s recent op-ed, The Charitable Industrial Complex, has been rocking the interwebs since its publication Saturday.  His basic but harsh argument, that philanthropy is essentially preserving the status quo while causing small blips of success that allow the wealthy to feel “heroic,”  has some people praising him for finally speaking truth to power, while others lambasting him for oversimplifying an incredibly complicated subject. Regardless of one’s opinion, I do think that it’s a positive that he’s generating dialogue on a topic that does not receive enough, largely because of the complicated power dynamics that are constantly at play between funders and non-profits.

When I read the op-ed, I immediately started thinking about its implications in the field I am most keenly aware of, education. I think his argument has some merit in the space. At times, philanthropists may be focusing on small successes rather than whole-scale, systems change.  We should be experimenting in education, but philanthropists should keep their eyes on the prize- whole-scale system-wide improvement.

The primary problem with philanthropy and education is actually that not enough of it goes to marginalized populations.  According to a 2010 report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, of 672 foundations that gave at least $1 million in education grants from 2006-2008, only 11% gave at least half of their allocations for vulnerable students.  It’s hard for philanthropy to make a dent in growing inequality in education if a majority of the dollars are actually going to private schools and universities.

But even with that divide, there is a lot of money flowing into attempting to fix the “achievement gap” these days.  Indisputably, our country is facing an education crisis: we can analyze the divide between rich and poor, white and black, our country and the rest of the world, or you can just step foot in a classroom in the heart of the Bronx.  So the question is, how can philanthropy play a role in fixing this?

According to Buffet, the way to fix the problem has to occur through systems-change, not through piece-meal solutions.  The only way our education system gets better is through solutions that improve the entire system, not just pockets of students.  Our education system is massive, and whole-scale changes are necessary to produce the results that all of our students deserve (the fact that the achievement gap has literally not moved in 20 years is evidence of this fact).

The problem, and I think where Buffet’s argument gains traction, is that it seems that a lot of education dollars are spent on solutions that are inherently not systemically scalable.  Let’s talk charter schools, which receive hundreds of millions of philanthropic dollars every year.  Recent studies show that about 13% of students in this country attend charter schools, which is actually a huge upsurge.  But charters are inherently limited in their scalability: they require private money, and the fact that they have so much flexibility means that, well, there are a lot of bad ones (the most optimistic studies show that 1 in 4 charters are actually producing effective results).

Additionally, the original purpose of charter schools was to serve not as the solution to our educational crisis, but as incubators of innovation so that public district schools could pull the best practices into their own work.  By and large, this isn’t happening.  So, essentially, instead of fundamentally disrupting the status quo, charters are creating small buckets of success.

So why is so much money flowing into charter schools?  Well, certain networks, like KIPP and Uncommon Schools (and I should mention Generation Citizen works in some of these schools) demonstrate high student gains, and also do an incredible job at marketing their efforts.  If you want to get a high Return on Investment, as Buffet talks about, they may be one of the best bets you can make (and I’ve had philanthropists tell me this).  You are putting money into a specific school that will produce specific results for specific students.  You feel more valued than were you to give to something more systems-focused. But you’re not bucking the system.

Charters alone will not fix the education crisis (and I’m using charters as a proof point, but there are many other similar examples in education reform).  We need whole-scale reform.  And the only sector that can adequately solve the problem on a scalable level is the public sector.  Meaning that philanthropy would be wise to follow what Buffet is arguing- focus less on the short-term successes of institutions like charters, and more on systems-wide change.  This is scary for people, because I think the untold truth that Buffet doesn’t talk about is that wealthy philanthropists have so little faith in the public sector that they feel their efforts are more successful if they bring them into their own hands.

So we need to focus on systems change, and we need to focus on strengthening systems to improve our education system.  What does that look like?  I’m not exactly sure, but I think funders can play a big role in this as long as they realize it will take a lot of experimentation, and a lot of long-term, rather than immediate, results. It involves everything to putting efforts into vastly improving our teacher preparation programs (one could make an argument that the best way to improve teaching practices would actually be to strengthen public universities, since that’s where so many teachers come from), to ensuring fairer funding formulas for schools, to yes, creating higher standards for teachers.

One final note: it’s interesting to think about where Generation Citizen plays in this, because, essentially we are a direct service program too that is inherently not scalable.  Therefore, the only way I think we can ultimately be successful, and we’ve talked about this internally, is if we use our model as a way to push schools and districts across the country to include action civics as part of their curriculum.  We need to get into the advocacy realm, and we need to demonstrate that our program is producing results.  We need to essentially do what charter schools were supposed to do- serve as an incubator for innovation, sharing our practices throughout the country.

~Scott Warren, Executive Director 

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.