Have K-12 Funders Stepped Up for Racial Equity and Justice Since 2020? Not According to This Report

Justiceis Cover Graphic

by Connie Matthiessen, originally published at Inside Philanthropy, March 7, 2024

The Schott Foundation for Public Education just published the third edition of Justice Is The Foundation, its annual overview of philanthropic support for racial equity and justice in education. As was the case in previous years, the report’s findings are not encouraging.

In all three of the reports it has released so far, the Schott Foundation worked with Candid to examine data on grantmaking for K-12 education through a racial equity and racial justice lens. The latest report found that while K-12 education philanthropy grants totaled $18.9 billion from 2019 to 2021, only $2.7 billion of that, or 14%, went to racial equity, and $63 million — just 0.3% — went to racial justice. 

In fact, after a close-up look at the data, Schott’s analysis was grim: “Despite a chorus of funders committing to changing their grantmaking practices amid the racial justice protests of 2020, grant dollars awarded to racial equity and racial justice work have declined compared to the period before it,” according to the announcement.

Schott defines funding for racial equity in education as “grants designed to close the achievement gap that persists between racial groups,” and funding for racial justice in education as “grants designed to address the larger systemic issues creating barriers to the ecosystem necessary to close opportunity gaps.” A drop-off across these funding streams bears out concerns about the ongoing post-2020 backlash to the racial justice movement, or at the very least, a lack of willingness among ed funders to remain committed for the long haul.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education is a funding intermediary that has received backing from the Ford, Bill & Melinda Gates, Hewlett, Nellie Mae and Raikes foundations, as well as the American Federation of Teachers, the NEA Foundation and others. In turn, Schott supports a range of grassroots organizations. Among its grantees are many that are pushing back against conservative attacks on public education, including through book bans, assaults on how history is taught, and attempts to limit the rights of LGBTQ+ students, as IP has reported

When the new report was announced, Schott’s president and CEO John H. Jackson challenged philanthropy to do better. “Educators and students know that the schoolhouse sits at the intersection of some of the most pressing issues of our day: housing, fair wages, access to mental and health care, environmental justice, voting rights and more,” he said. “We call on philanthropy to respond to this historic moment and opportunity by making transformative investments in racial equity and justice work.” 

Pledges and regressions

A number of those in and around philanthropy, including IP, have attempted to assess how well philanthropy is living up to the racial justice commitments funders made in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. The sector, as a rule, hasn’t earned stellar marks.

In 2022, IP’s Martha Ramirez and Tate Williams published a three-part report on the topic, concluding that while some funders had made significant strides, far more needs to be done. More recently, Ramirez highlighted what appears to be a backlash against equity work, fueled in part by the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action last June. 

In another measure, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, after surveying 280 foundations last fall, concluded that most weren’t planning significant changes in strategy after the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling. But representatives of the Philanthropic Network for Racial Equity found that many foundations, cowed by the ruling, are backing away from racial justice programs. As they wrote in a recent article for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Through workshops and direct conversations with more than 100 organizers and foundation staff, our organization… has seen a regression in recent months from core racial-justice values at the very moment deeper investments are needed to battle the radical right and its efforts to undermine progress.” 

The Schott Foundation’s report underscores the fleeting nature of the pledges many funders made in 2020: “While the data shows a modest uptick in racial equity grants in 2020, in 2021, it dropped, landing below even 2019’s total.”  

The report also determined that “geographically, K-12 racial equity and justice grants are not properly flowing to where students of color are found.” Funding for racial justice has gone primarily to the Northeast. Racial equity funding was distributed more evenly across the country, but only 14% of funding for racial justice was distributed to grantees in the South and 10% to those in the West, even though 43% of K-12 students of color are enrolled in the South and 29% in the West. 

As Jackson put it, “We lived through COVID and a period of racial reckoning when funders felt the need to react, as philanthropy often does. And what we’re finding now is that that was a reactive moment for many philanthropies, many boards, many CEOs and many institutions. But now more than ever, the racial equity and racial justice organizations fighting to create more of a multiracial democracy and to ensure that our democracy works need resources, and need more stable partners and more stable funding.” 

Action steps 

The report doesn’t just provide bleak news, however. It also offers ideas for how philanthropy can provide more stable funding, pointing out that “opportunities to collaborate and support transformative work are myriad, scalable, and ready to effectively use new resources immediately.” It points to “action steps” — ways funders can transform their grantmaking strategy, organizational practices and analysis.

“Number one is prioritizing racial equity and racial justice investments in your annual portfolio,” Jackson said. “That sounds simple, but if you don’t name it and prioritize it, it won’t happen. Second, engage those closest to the challenges and the solutions in the process for distributing the resources, whether that’s through connecting with program officers or through participatory grantmaking. Third, we need to think about how we move past just transferring grants, to long term commitments and transferring wealth. That could happen through making five-to 10-year commitments to grantee partners, or through endowments to grantee partners. If there’s any sector that knows the power of endowment, it is the philanthropic sector. That’s the next phase of trust-based philanthropy.” 

The Schott Foundation has itself created an endowment fund to close these gaps, the Racial Justice in Education Endowment Collaborative Fund, with a five-year, $30 million campaign. And in a recent IP guest post, Jackson and Susan Taylor Batten, the president and CEO of ABFE, urged philanthropy to endow its grantees, pointing out that “we endow museums, universities and hospitals, but we do not endow the infrastructure needed to keep our democracy working and advance racial justice, i.e., the grantees doing the work.”

More broadly, as IP reported recently, education philanthropy as a whole faces funding disruptions and broader currents that could weaken ed nonprofits working for education and racial equity at a time when an ongoing conservative backlash threatens to undermine public education itself. The upshot of Schott’s report is that as 2020 recedes from view, an ed philanthropy field that made broad promises to back racial equity and justice still doesn’t seem to be living up to them.