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Janresseger: Education Philanthropists Respond When Challenged to Increase Investment in Projects for Racial Justice in Public Schools

The Schott Foundation for Public Education recently released Justice Is the Foundation, a new report that lifts up the need for increasing philanthropic support for racial justice in American public education. Here is how the report begins:

“Concentrations of wealth are both created by and reinforce the historic and present hierarchies of race, gender, and class. As many philanthropic leaders and advocates have stressed, what matters now is not just to recognize that extreme inequality, but to help resolve it through shifting power and resources from the few to the many… The Schott Foundation for Public Education worked with Candid, a center for nonprofit resources and tools… to critically examine K-12 education philanthropy’s grantmaking priorities. Our project, Justice is the Foundation, assesses the collective philanthropic impact of giving in the education sector through the lens of racial equity and racial justice. We believe that education philanthropy has an important and irreplaceable role to play in building a more just and equitable society: public schools touch 90% of students in the U.S….”

In the new report, the Schott Foundation defines what ought to be the two primary purposes of grants addressing racism and the culture wars in public schools: “Racial equity in education grants refers to grants designed to close the achievement gap that persists between racial groups… Racial justice in education grants refers to grants designed to address the larger systemic issues creating barriers to the ecosystem necessary to close opportunity gaps… (including) organizing… to change the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial inequity.” (Emphasis is mine.)

The Justice is the Foundation report exposes a troubling decline since 2018 in the level of education philanthropy supporting racial equity and racial justice at school: “Both racial equity and racial justice remain drastically underfunded by the K-12 philanthropic sector… K-12 education philanthropy’s already scant investment in racial justice dropped sharply compared to 2018-2020. The $62 million recorded in 2019-2021—just 0.3% of grantmaking—pales in comparison  to the still-meager $105 million (0.7%) in 2018-2020…  Racial equity work is drastically underfunded by K-12 philanthropy… Investment in racial justice work—the efforts to solve the systemic inequities that racial equity work ameliorates—remains vanishingly small, especially compared to the scope of the challenge.”

In a March 2024 column in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Schott Foundation’s President and CEO, Dr. John Jackson and Nicole Rodriguez Leach explore the data: “The latest Justice Is the Foundation data, covering grants made from 2019-2021…. paints a stark picture. Between 2019 and 2021, racial equity grants were $2.7 billion, just 14 percent of the $18.9 billion granted by K-12 funders over that period.  Racial justice, the very category of funding that aims for the highest level of transformation, were a vanishingly small slice of the pie at $62 million, or 0.3 percent.  If there was a racial justice reckoning in 2020, K-12 education philanthropy as a sector was slow to act upon it.”

Jackson and Rodriguez Leach examine what has happened since 2018: “First, the American classroom has changed… Data from the National Center for Education Statistics tells us that as of 2021, public school students in the U.S. are now majority non-white…. Second, the education justice movement has changed…. As the public school community has diversified, parents, young people, and educators have increased their demands for equitable funding, an end to discriminatory and punitive school discipline policies and (for) the wraparound services and supports needed to make the promise of quality education real for every child…. (Third) the larger racial justice movement, too, has changed… reaching its most recent peak in the summer of 2020 after the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Institutions large and small have shifted their rhetoric, and to a lesser extent their practices, in response to their members, customers, donors, and constituents. The fourth factor is a backlash to the first three, in a pattern that extends back to the Reconstruction Era…. Advances in racial justice are being met with harsh reaction from the radical right.”

In a separate column for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Jackson discusses the urgent importance of building up philanthropic investment in this work: “Our public schools are not only places of learning but also the place for the next generation to establish, co-create and evolve their civic governance and societal norms. This is what the far right knows and what philanthropies who won’t fund pubic education advocacy must reconcile. The drop in philanthropic support for racial justice work in education has left a void that those who oppose a multi-racial democracy are more than happy to fill. They spread narratives that public education is a failing effort and draft policy proposals designed to send public dollars to private schools. Groups like Moms for Liberty try to pass policies to ban books, whitewash curriculum….  What they frame as anti-CRT are a host of policies rooted in anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-democratic values. They are trying to weaponize public education to dismantle the values of a multi-racial democracy: equity, fairness, and inclusion.”

It is encouraging that the Schott Foundation and others are pressing for an increase in philanthropic funding for organizations supporting inclusive and equitable public schools. Inside Philanthropy‘s Connie Matthiessen reported last week on the launch of the Education Future Fund, a new philanthropic coalition that aims to cool the culture war flames and protect public schools.  Seven philanthropic foundations, each with a history of  funding pro-public schools initiatives, have announced the launch of the new campaign and a new website that centers “public education as the cornerstone of an inclusive, strong democracy” and condemns “politicized attacks on inclusive education.”  Joining in the new philanthropic initiative are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lozier Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Philanthropies, Spencer Foundation, and Pivotal Ventures. The seven philanthropies already have history of working together, but now declare their commitment to the joint initiative:  “Responding to the urgent needs raised by our partners in the field, we came together… to collaborate on an aligned strategy and grantmaking. We strive to support the field in advancing a proactive and positive agenda and narrative, in defending against censorship efforts, and in mitigating the chilling effect on educators and system leaders.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education has been a leader in the effort to expand wider philanthropic investment to oppose the culture war disruption of public schooling and support racial justice. The Schott Foundation is a partner in H.E.A.L. Together (Honest Education Action & Leadership) , a project of Race Forward.  H.E.A.L Together’s website describes how the project supports work to overcome the culture wars: “By joining H.E.A.L. Together, you will receive tools and trainings to help you organize your school and community for educational equity — countering those bringing the culture wars to our schools under the guise of “Critical Race Theory,” by banning books and censoring educators who teach honestly about race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

In her report for Inside Philanthropy, Mathiessen quotes Dr. John Jackson about how the past year’s effort to rejuvenate philanthropy for racial justice in public schools made a difference in last November’s election in which the majority of Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates were defeated: “We haven’t been sitting on our hands… This happened because there were investments, many organizations and activists and racial justice organizations were pushing back … and engaging voters around elections. Moms for Liberty lost a lot of traction in the last election cycle, but they aren’t going to stop. Still, we are confident that if we have the infrastructure to elevate the truth and to engage a large base of voters, they will see the same level of defeat that they saw in the last election.”4

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...