K-12 Philanthropy Now: How to Maximize Your Impact

In this installment of the Expert Giving series we interviewed several liberty-movement folks on the different aspects of K-12 ed reform and the impact of COVID-19 on primary education. Here we’re sharing their perspectives and advice to donors looking to get involved in this space. You can read the previous Expert Giving article on supporting medical research here

Watching my children wrestle with the sudden switch to online schooling last fall may have been the most challenging part of quarantine disruptions. We weren’t the only ones, and the ramifications of such disruptions continue to ripple through society.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have created and will continue to force change, many experts in the K-12 education space see an opportunity for lasting – and positive – innovation.

But where are donor dollars most leveraged in creating broad educational value for America’s kids? Should donors invest in upping the number of homeschoolers? Is there a fundraising outlet for pod learning? Is it getting policy right? Fighting government unions? Doubling down on charters?

Certainly, much of this depends on the donors’ own priorities. To help identify some of the key areas for targeted philanthropic investment, we asked a number of experts in the free-market education world for their recommendations on leveraged ways to give to support educational innovation. If any of these suggestions spark your thinking, let us know – we are happy to connect you to leaders involved in achieving these bold goals.

Africa has widespread mobile phone adoption, bypassing the wired networks of landline phones. This transcendence of a complicated and messy system suggests a path for education reformers: while improving the K-12 system remains a worthy goal, there are profound and easier opportunities to help millions of children achieve a better education by bypassing the system entirely. Donors should consider supporting the creation and defense of these alternative approaches, which include homeschool co-ops, microschools, so-called “pods,” and more. Finally, investment is needed in the production and distribution of educational material that teaches young students accurate history and the ideas behind America’s founding so that we can actually learn from the past so as not to tragically repeat it.
Connor Boyack
President, Libertas Institute (Utah) and author of the Tuttle Twins books

The best thing philanthropists can invest in is school choice – enabling parents to decide where their kids will be educated rather than having their only real option be public schools to which they are assigned by their home address. This can in part be done through tax credit programs that exist in 18 states, for which donors receive credits for donating to organizations that provide private school scholarships. (Importantly, whether credits are available to individuals or businesses varies from state to state, as do other rules and restrictions.) There are also organizations that provide scholarships regardless of the presence of tax credit programs, most notably the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Of course, individual schools, Catholic dioceses, and many other private school organizations would benefit from philanthropic support, enabling them to provide more affordable options for more children.

Children right now need access to the best schools for them right now, not after years of political work to maybe alter public schools a bit. The most bang for the philanthropic buck – and a child’s life – would come from making private options more affordable as soon as possible.
Neal McClusky
Director of the Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute

If philanthropists are looking to help in this time of disruption for K-12 education, they should invest in policy reforms and direct opportunities to give families more choices in how they educate their children. This means supporting reforms that break down barriers to innovation in education, like the creation of multi-family learning “pods,” homeschooling resources, more private and charter school options, and emergency funds via ESAs directed towards families who need the extra support to pursue different options. There is a huge window of opportunity to rethink how we fund and deliver education outside of the public-school status quo to better meet the needs of families. According to our latest polling, 66% of parents with a child in the home agree that a portion of funding should follow students so that they can pay for an alternative.
Kathleen O’Hearn
Senior Director of Policy Advancement, State Policy Network

Philanthropists looking to advance positive change in K-12 education should focus on three areas: effective policy advocacy, effective parent outreach, and access to innovative models of education. Groups like my organization (EdChoice) are working with policymakers and local stakeholders nationwide to implement policies like K-12 education savings accounts that empower families to choose from a wide variety of options to customize their child’s education. These policies only effect systemic change if families know they exist, which is why the work of local parent groups like Love Your School, Families Empowered, and Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina are so vital. Finally, philanthropists should support organizations that are helping disadvantaged families access innovative models of education, like microschools and parent pods, such as the Homeschool Pod Grants from the National Parents Union.
Jason Bedrick
Director of Policy, EdChoice

Run toward the organizations and ideas that are finding creative ways to harness the real needs of this COVID-19 moment to move the needle for freedom. For example, here in South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster used emergency federal funds to create SAFE Grants, a needs-based school choice program for families being deserted by the public education system. A similar initiative is underway in Oklahoma. SC’s union-backed education establishment clearly understood SAFE Grants – the largest new private school choice effort in the country in 2020 – as a threat to its power base and attacked immediately. Litigation is currently pending before the South Carolina Supreme Court. Whatever that outcome, the Governor’s bold move has elevated the issue of school choice, energized an army of parent activists, and opened up new legislative frontiers to advance education freedom in the Palmetto State.
Ellen Weaver
President & CEO, Palmetto Promise Institute

Philanthropy is critical to advancing change in K-12 education. Over the last few months, my colleagues and I at The Philanthropy Roundtable have hosted educational webinars featuring leaders and organizations offering immediate support to families trying to navigate new educational challenges caused by Covid-19, and help accelerate policy changes that would allow them to customize their children’s education. Notable webinars include Eva Moskowitz and Distance Learning, Education in Times of Crisis, and Modern Classrooms Project and Distance Learning. And in October, the Roundtable will host sessions on excellence in education Philanthropy at its Annual Meeting.

Throughout the summer, enterprising leaders and philanthropists have risen up to create an excellent virtual learning platform that will continue to partner with a variety of school delivery models throughout the year, establish public-private partnerships to get technology into the hands of students, awarded microgrants to low-income parents who want to access summer learning opportunities, create learning pods or launch learning communities, and offer tactical and financial support to parents learning how to homeschool their children. Governors in NH, OK, and SC chose to use their CARES Act funds to award grants to families to customize their children’s education or offered grants to schools to reimagine how to deliver education in the future. The novel coronavirus exposed weaknesses in bureaucratic systems that hinder the ability of leaders and teachers to pivot and respond to the educational and technological needs of low-income students. Organizations like 50CAN, American Federation for Children, ExcelinEd and state-based think tanks are working with state and federal policymakers to take advantage of this moment to reimagine how K-12 education is delivered, give parents and teachers greater choice and opportunity, and preserve accountability and transparency.
Katherine Haley
Vice President of Programs, The Philanthropy Roundtable

Philanthropists can advance positive change in education by supporting the growth of charter schools – and specifically by supporting current and potential single-site leaders, who have traditionally had a harder time accessing philanthropic funding than well-connected CMOs. Supporting these innovative leaders would help to advance educational opportunity in communities where better options are most needed, and ensure that schools are deeply rooted in communities, which will make the schools more durable against the inevitable political attacks from unions and other interests. With these attacks intensifying, national advocacy and communications efforts will be needed to push back against the opposition and to move the needle with key decision makers and the public at large.
Nina Rees
President & CEO, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

The most effective way to train and equip teachers is to educate them on the brutal truth about their unions, but reaching them is tricky business and requires insider knowledge and a teachers’ heart. About 85% of America’s teachers still pay unions providing billions annually to far-left causes. That’s because most educators are too terrified to leave unions, they feel alone, or they have no idea that their unions (and the politicians and radical organizations they control) are the root cause of every single divisive problem in our schools and our culture; including anti-American and anti-family policies, radical indoctrination, the sexualization of kids, defunding police, dangerous lenient discipline policies, and more.
Rebecca Friedrichs
Founder, For Kids and Country

If any philanthropist wanted to get involved in reforming our K-12 system, now is the time. Families and reformers have more leverage than ever before because the global pandemic has exposed the true weakness and the calcified inflexibility of our K-12 model. Philanthropists can invest in effective policy organizations that have the opportunity to change – at scale – our $800 billion enterprise that we call K-12 education, alongside direct investments in proven and new models of education. The best-leveraged investments would go to: unique hybrid homeschooling models like pods and microschools; investments in school choice mechanisms like charter school networks and tax-credit scholarships; and most importantly, investments into advocacy organizations that are seeking to change state laws which dictate more than 90% of the funding structures of our K-12 systems.
Tommy Schultz,
Vice President of Communications and Marketing, American Federation for Children


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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