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While government provides the vast majority of funding for public education, philanthropy is playing an increasingly prominent role in the field. There is a growing recognition that a high-quality education can significantly alter the course of an individual’s life by breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty, and that high-quality education across the board has the power to alter the direction of an entire nation. Not only is it the key to unlocking a tremendous amount of potential, but many of the philanthropists we interviewed also believe failure to reform the current U.S. education system will have serious repercussions. Without reform, says Eli Broad, “our standard of living would go down and our economy would be at risk.” Despite daunting challenges, our interviewees are optimistic thanks to programs that are demonstrating significant results.
The philanthropists we interviewed who focus on education are compelled to do so for a number of reasons: a fierce desire to provide equal opportunity for all children, a drive to build the backbone of skilled workers for local and U.S. economic development, and the urgent need to improve America’s international competitiveness. Opinions differ among our interviewees regarding whether the most important changes needed are in the areas of student learning, teacher preparation, school and district leadership, or a specific stage in the education continuum, such as early childhood, K-12, or college/post-secondary. As a result, the philanthropists we interviewed have embraced a variety of approaches, including teacher and leader training, school turnarounds, charter schools, next-generation learning and technology, and youth development organizations aimed at helping individuals reach their full potential.
Although approaches differ, what underlies many philanthropists’ approach to education is a desire to identify and fund innovative approaches to improve and influence the field.