Education is an engine of opportunity. That is why, around the world, the fortunate have invested in education when seeking to give back. In the US, famous individuals such as Bill Gates have led the charge on 21st-century school reform.
In other places, the names are different but many of the motivations and ambitions are the same. While there’s much to admire about these efforts, they also need more scrutiny than an appreciative public and grateful policy-makers tend to give them.
Philanthropy in the US
In the US, philanthropy plays an outsized role in education. The share of the world’s wealthiest people who live in the USA, along with tax laws that encourage charitable giving and the nation’s creedal commitment to opportunity, have yielded a vibrant philanthropic role in educational improvement. Consequently, US foundations tend to be larger than foreign foundations, and philanthropic giving to US education is enormous by international standards. The top 10 donors gave a total of about $800 million in 2016 to US K–12 education, with more than half of that provided by the top two givers – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
Those are big numbers, but they’re dwarfed when the spending is considered alongside the total public investment in US schools. Total philanthropic spending on K–12 schools in the US is somewhat less than $5 billion a year, or well under 1 percent of US school spending. Indeed, all reported national giving to US K–12 education was less than 25 percent of what New York City alone spent on its schools in 2016. Philanthropic contributions are just a drop in the ocean. Yet, while philanthropic funds are just a sliver of overall school spending, they can matter greatly when used to shift policy or promote particular reforms. How has this philanthropy affected schooling in the US?