Philanthropy aimed at K-12 education in the U.S. has ramped up in the past few decades and remains complex and controversial. Funders back diverse causes like delivering new learning technologies, establishing charter schools and backing professional development for public school teachers, among many others. Along with local and regional funders, major philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates, Broad and Walton Family Foundations direct hundreds of millions to education annually. Diane Ravitch says these funders should prioritize helping under-resourced American learning institutions and families by supporting traditional public schools and their teachers, and addressing income inequality. She discussed these topics as well as funding for girls and the pitfalls of charter schools with Philanthropy Women. Ravitch is an education author and historian and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. She is currently a research professor of Education at New York University and president of the Network for Public Education, which she founded.
Ravitch on Addressing American Inequality
“Our society is reaching a very dangerous moment because of the vast increase in income inequality and wealth inequality… The richest are getting very rich, while many in the middle class are one paycheck removed from poverty,” Ravitch says. She thinks a higher minimum wage and greater investments in public schools, teachers’ salaries and public health services are necessary.
Some of the related philanthropic causes she believes in are reducing class size, protecting student privacy, women’s reproductive health and rights, civil liberties and social justice. Ravitch has also previously upheld universal PreK as a way to “make school a stronger equalizer than it is today.” She mentions the Network for Public Education, Class Size Matters, Parents Coalition for Student Privacy, Planned Parenthood, American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center as organizations working in some of the fields she cares most about.
How Can Women Donors Fund Girls’ Education?
Ravitch shares some thoughts and advice specific to women donors and supporting girls.
“[Invest] in prenatal health services, so that pregnant women are healthy and give birth to healthy children. That directly affects women and children,” she says. And, she suggests supporting groups that advocate “for play and healthy child development in the early years,” such as Defending the Early Years, an advocacy group that is primarily composed of women.
Ravitch also believes funding arts programs in public schools can benefit girls (and all children), so they “have the opportunity to sing, dance, sculpt, act and perform.” She recalls visiting a high school “long famed in Pittsburgh for the musicians who graduated there that no longer had funding for uniforms or instruments.” Ravitch notes that Bette Midler gives funding to help schools repair performance spaces, and Tony Bennett funds the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York City. Another example is Funny Girls, a philanthropic investment by the Harnisch Foundation in NYC that employs improv techniques to build girls’ leadership skills in public after-school programs.
Along with creative expression, helping girls and young women explore STEM fields, in which they are underrepresented, is another popular avenue for funders who want to support their learning and empowerment. Of course, there are many ways to help girls experience educational success, including mentoring; seeking girls’ input and leadership in school and community decision making; addressing bullying and rigid gender norms; promoting LGBTQ+ rights; and ending sexual violence, sex trafficking, child marriage and female genital mutilation. And philanthropy that works to reduce student debt and the gender pay gap can open more doors for women as they move through higher education and enter the workforce.
Funding Public Schools Over Charters as a Civil Rights Issue
Ravitch is a fierce advocate for traditional public schools. While charter schools vary widely in design and culture, Ravitch describes them as a whole as “a very bad investment for many reasons. The sector is highly unstable. Charters close almost as rapidly as they open.”
Ravitch acknowledges that some have high test scores, but she thinks this apparent success lies largely in their ability to “cherry pick” and expel students at will. And she points out that most charter schools do not perform better than public ones, and some perform worse, saying, “It is now widely acknowledged that charter schools don’t get better results than public schools, so what is the point?”
Equitable public education has long been a civil rights issue. Ravitch says, “Charters are an affront to civil rights causes.” She points out that these schools are more socially and racially segregated than their public counterparts and that many exclude certain groups of students, including those who have disabilities or who don’t speak English as their first language. For those who’d like to dive deeper, many of the studies documenting these trends, as well as other charter school features and controversies, are discussed in this 2015 Washington Post article covering a National Education Policy Center report of the same year.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charters, due to some of the reasons mentioned above. Ravitch sees charters as “pathway to vouchers” and, like the NAACP, she opposes school vouchers and privatization. She says public education is a civic obligation, not a “consumer choice.” She previously said “every neighborhood should have a good public school,” and that parents who then choose a private school “should pay for it.”
Public School Philanthropy
Ravitch mentions the Dalios’ move to support Connecticut public schools rather than its charters — a move inspired by Barbara Dalio’s experience volunteering in schools — as a powerful example of pro-public school philanthropy. She also lists Marc Benioff of Salesforce and the Sherwood and Schott Foundations as philanthropists and philanthropies who have backed public education, adding that there are countless other individuals and organizations involved. The Schott Foundation recently launched a #PublicSchoolGrad media campaign and scholarship to “highlight the positive outcomes from our nation’s public schools and students.”
Speaking of positive outcomes, Ravitch has said in the past that American public education “is a huge success,” in terms of improvement in key metrics like test scores and high school graduation rates over time.
“Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty,” she said, again underscoring the need to address economic inequality.
Ravitch describes philanthropy for public schools as advocacy “on behalf of a state and national commitment to equality of educational opportunity, and a rebirth of great American public schools.”
The kind of philanthropy that most inspires Ravitch is “not self-aggrandizing,” like the Kalamazoo Promise, wherein anonymous donors pledged to pay state college tuition for everyone who graduates from Kalamazoo public schools in Michigan.
For philanthropists who are interested in directing funding to public schools, Ravitch suggests taking a firsthand, receptive approach, much as Barbara Dalio did in Connecticut. “Support public schools by visiting them [and] spending time getting to know what they need. Volunteer. Every school has different needs.”
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