Education reform continued to be front and center on the philanthropic agenda in 2012, with foundations, corporate giving programs, and individual donors pouring money into efforts to close the student achievement gap, boost early childhood education, expand school choice and student learning time, and improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math.
One of the more significant commitments of the year was announced in March, when telecommunications giant AT&T pledged $250 million over five years to boost high school graduation rates nationwide and improve the college and career readiness of at-risk students through approaches that emphasize technology. Technology in the service of better educational results also was the focus of groups like the NewSchools Venture Fund, which launched a seed fund in January to support tech entrepreneurs working to develop education-related tools and services, and Education Elements and the Silicon Schools Fund, which each announced new initiatives to expand so-called blended-learning schools and technology-rich education services.
Complimenting these efforts were a number of initiatives designed to boost STEM education. In July, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment announced an additional $5 million in grants to the Economic Opportunities Through Education by 2015 initiative to link educational opportunities to STEM careers in southeast Indiana, while in October 100Kin10, a multi-sector partnership committed to training a hundred thousand science, technology, engineering and math teachers, launched a second Innovation Fund to increase the number of STEM teachers nationwide.
Expanded learning time initiatives also received significant support in 2012. In May, the Ford Foundation announced a $50 million commitment to create a coalition of education and civic leaders that will advocate for adding more learning time to the school day and year, while in June the Walmart Foundation announced more than $20 million in grants to support summer learning programs.
The second half of the year saw a flurry of philanthropic activity in support of charter schools and school choice. With kids at home for the summer, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation announced YES Prep Public Schools in Houston as the winner of the first Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, citing the system's success at eliminating nearly all income and ethnic achievement gaps among students. In August, the Walton Family Foundation, another prominent supporter of charter schools and school choice, announced $3 million in grants to support greater school choice in Indianapolis. And in October, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a relative newcomer to the national philanthropic scene, awarded a total of $15 million in support of school choice efforts in New Orleans.
It was Philadelphia, however, that was the scene of one of the year's most ambitious K-12 education reform efforts. In August, the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership announced that it had raised more than half of its $100 million goal for a fund to support the Great Schools Compact, a pledge signed last December by district, charter school, religious, and city and state officials to close or overhaul low-performing schools in the city and replace them with high-quality alternatives. PSP has received major grants from the William Penn Foundation ($15 million) and the Maguire Foundation ($5 million), and as of August had disbursed roughly $7 million in grants to various schools. "This is now a much broader group of funders than we had a year ago," PSP executive director Mark Gleason told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We have some corporate funders; we have some individuals; we have some foundations. We have funders who historically supported Catholic schools, who have historically supported charter schools, who weren't that active in funding education at all."
Critics of the effort pointed out that PSP has not yet funded any district schools, nor commited to improving long-struggling schools without first being given authority to overhaul them. "Schools aren't failing because they're bad schools," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan told the Inquirer. "There's a serious lack of resources."
Gleason, however, is optimistic about the good PSP can do for school-age kids in the city. If the initiative reaches its fundraising goal, "we can have a direct impact on a large number of students -- we're scaling reform," he told the Inquirer in a different interview. "Even more important, potentially, is that if we can raise $100 million from a broad cross-section of funders that cuts across traditional political and ideological boundaries, we think we can help to change the dialogue in Philadelphia away from the tension and rivalries between different kinds of schools and into a more collaborative focus on how we can all work together to make sure we have lots of good school options."