Schools Need Support to Reinvent Themselves. Will Philanthropy Step Up to Help?

December 1, 2021

By Leo Bialis-White and Scott Benson 

Philanthropy can be a powerful force for good. When innovators have a compelling idea that meets the moment, philanthropy can provide flexible, responsive capital so those ideas can flourish. 

This is one such moment in education.

Despite a massive infusion of federal aid — $190 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, school systems are stretched thin. State and local leaders need support developing quality plans to address the effects of the pandemic, and the best service providers are navigating major surges in demand. If philanthropy steps in to provide the upfront capital needed for these providers to add capacity, more states and districts can get the support they need to improve the lives of millions of students and reimagine schools in the process. 

So why aren’t more funders stepping up? 

NewSchools Venture Fund invested more than $30 million this year in innovators who are bringing new ideas to uplift schools and communities most impacted by the pandemic. Today we are announcing an additional $2.5 million in funds for organizations doing innovative work with states and districts that need their expertise to recover and rebuild. 

These organizations are led by diverse, capable teams and have a record of helping school systems advance equity, innovation, and achievement. With their support, states and districts can tackle unfinished learning, mental health, social-emotional concerns, and build back better than before. Additional capital will allow the organizations to hire more staff and partner with more districts that could benefit from their work.

Our team had the idea to deploy additional funds after doing a listening tour in the summer (before many schools reopened for in-person learning). We asked leaders in the field these two questions: 

  1. What support do states and districts need right now? 
  2. Who has “shovel-ready” ideas to support those needs? 

These conversations gave us deeper insights into the challenges and potential opportunities in this moment. We heard stories of education leaders who were exhausted and needed additional support. Leaders were grappling with how to meet competing demands and navigate through the complexities of restarting and rebuilding with limited time and capacity. 

But there was also a recognition that public education is at an inflection point and that the ESSER funds could be used to meet immediate needs and reimagine the educational experience long-term. From these conversations, we came to understand new ways that philanthropy could unlock innovation and accelerate change. 

Specifically, we identified five organizations that can help school districts recover and reimagine their work in unique ways. Our team responded quickly to meet the needs of these organizations, using our own strategic reserves to deploy capital. 

  • Catalyst:Ed is a nonprofit that plays a matchmaking and facilitator role between consultants and states, districts, and nonprofits. With our funding, the group will be able to support the strategic planning efforts of 45 districts in 3 to 5 states by connecting districts with the right providers to address their urgent needs.
  • Education Pioneers is a nonprofit with a fellowship program that provides senior-level talent to districts and charter management organizations. Our investment will support a new cohort of fellows who will be trained and matched with districts that need talent to recover and rebuild.
  • Instruction Partners is a nonprofit that works with districts to ensure equitable access to great teaching for students in underserved communities. With additional funding, the group will be able to grow their capacity and expertise to support state-level planning efforts, offering integrated support that advances the academic, social-emotional learning, and equity priorities of up to 10 states. 
  • Transcend works with superintendents, principals, and teachers in hundreds of schools across 30 states and shares best practices that advance effective and inclusive educational models. Our funding will support the nonprofit to develop a training and credentialing program for independent consultants, which would allow them to extend their reach, while also building the capacity of community-based organizations to provide school redesign support. 
  • UnboundED empowers educators to disrupt systemic racism through professional learning opportunities and high-quality instructional materials. Our funding will allow UnboundED to move forward with developing a digital ecosystem that helps educators make informed choices about content and services. We believe the effort will change school- and district-level purchasing behavior toward better, equity-focused products and services.

States and districts have three years, until September 2024, to spend and show the impact of the federal aid that has been coming their way since last March. Now is the time for philanthropy to support the innovators that are needed in this moment — innovators with smart and bold ideas to blunt the pandemic’s effects and ensure that schools do not go back to the “old normal” when the funding expires.

Philanthropy can help these innovators be in a stronger position to support school recovery and re-imagination efforts by investing in their capacity and sustainability. That’s what our meet-the-moment investments are intended to do over the next three years. We hope more funders will follow suit.