2004: Year in Review - Private Support for Public Education

December 29, 2004

As state spending on education continued to slow, private support, especially for education reform efforts, became even more important in 2004.

Leading the way was the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which remained focused on scrapping large traditional high schools in urban school districts and replacing them with smaller schools that have well-defined missions, encourage frequent interaction between faculty and students, and develop structures and curricula that can be replicated.

"They've made the problem visible with the magnitude and breadth of their investments," said Robert Schwartz, an education professor at Harvard. "And they've crisscrossed the country looking for promising school examples and trying to make the case to urban superintendents and policy makers as to why they needed a radical reform strategy. The fact that the guy doing the talking had a very large wallet has helped get people's attention."

The news on other fronts was somewhat less promising, as the first national comparison of charter and public school test scores showed that fourth-graders who attend charter schools perform about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. "It confirms what a lot of people who study charter schools have been worried about," commented Amy Stuart Wells, a sociology professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "There is a lack of accountability. They're really uneven in terms of quality."

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Robert Thompson, a local philanthropist who had withdrawn an offer to spend $200 million to build fifteen charter schools in the city after the plan drew heated opposition from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he would reconsider the plan ? in Detroit or elsewhere ? but only if he received public support from local political and community leaders.

The importance of teachers in the education equation did not escape the attention of private funders. In July, the Wachovia Foundation pledged $20 million to support teachers because, as Steve Bentley, the financial service company's director of community affairs, put it, "research demonstrates that the classroom teacher is the single most critical factor in increasing student achievement." And the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, a longtime funder of education reform initiatives, commissioned two studies designed to examine the influence of school leadership on student learning, before subsequently announcing that it would expand its State Action for Education Leadership Project (SAELP) to six additional states: Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Texas.

Related news:
Mott Foundation Replaces Lost State Funding for After-School Program (1/09/04)

Knight Foundation Commits $13 Million to School Success in Northern California Communities (1/23/04)

Detroit Philanthropist Considers Charter School Options (2/27/04)

Kauffman Foundation Awards $12.9 Million to Expand 'Freedom Schools' (3/12/04)

Broad Foundation Awards $2.8 Million to Develop Charter Schools in Los Angeles (3/16/04)

Gates Foundation Awards $9.5 Million to Troubled Oakland School District (3/20/04)

NewSchools Venture Fund Launches Nonprofit to Build Charter Schools in Los Angeles (4/16/04)

Wachovia Foundation Pledges $20 Million to Support Teachers (7/08/04)

Educators, Nonprofits Concerned Public Schools Neglect the Arts (7/14/04)

Wallace Foundation Commissions Studies on Education Leadership (7/27/04)

Charter Schools Trail Other Public Schools, Test Scores Show (8/18/04)

Private Support Bolsters Public Schools, May Increase Disparities (11/18/04)

Norwich Free Academy Receives $12 Million for Endowment (11/11/04)

Wallace Foundation Expands its Project to Improve Education Leadership (11/11/04)

Gates Foundation Investment in Secondary Education Drives Reform (12/08/04)

Gates Foundation Expands Early-College School Network (12/09/04)