Can philanthropy promote equality in education?

Venture philanthropy is a relatively new concept in Australian public schools. We are all familiar with the Parent Association fundraiser for library books or sports equipment, we are not as familiar with big corporations donating hundreds of thousands of dollars for special programs or building projects. Since 2015, the Australian charity Schools Plus has distributed more than $3.5 million in donations to support 156 projects in public schools.

This is a historical shift in the way that public schools receive extra funding.

Is it an innovative solution to growing equity problems in Australian schools or a way for big business to influence young minds? Dr Emma Rowe, a researcher with Deakin University’s strategic research centre Research for Educational Impact (REDI), is aiming to find out. She has been granted an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) to study ‘Venture philanthropy in public education: governance, policy and practice’. The aim is to improve our understanding of the benefits and risks of philanthropic public–private partnerships in public schools.

Dr Rowe has spent her academic career studying inequity in schools. Her work examines educational reform and education policy, particularly in the areas of school choice, privatisation and schools competing for students (marketisation).

Her interest stems from personal experience. “I attended a secondary school that was significantly under resourced. My passion for education research is based on a desire to make things different for other kids.”

Dr Rowe’s high school experience is not unusual. In 2018 a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that inequity in Australian education was a major issue. It has resulted in a gap of three years of schooling between students who attend advantaged and disadvantaged schools. These inequalities directly relate to funding disparities that are both a cause and a consequence of school social segregation — schools that are made up of students from a particular socioeconomic background. Disadvantaged schools in Australia tend to be populated by disadvantaged students, have far fewer resources (books, facilities, laboratories) and struggle to attract and retain experienced teachers.

Injecting private funds into public schools is seen as a way to close the equity gap.

Private–public partnerships are not new in schools. Multinationals, such as Apple and Microsoft, have been supplying technology to schools for many years. Lately, high wealth individuals around the world have been showing an interest in solving what they define as global challenges for education, such as a lack of innovation and enduring inequity. Changes in tax laws have provided incentives for Australian philanthropists and large corporations to follow this trend and start supporting Australian public schools.

"The claim is that philanthropy improves equity and resourcing in schools, so I will be comparing schools that have received philanthropy with those at a similar socioeconomic level that have not received philanthropy," said Dr Rowe.

"But I also want to gain a deeper understanding about these partnerships and how they work for all parties. What is motivating this philanthropy and what is its impact on schools and students? Is it reaching into schools and influencing policy and practice? How is that affecting governance?"

"Access to a good education is a litmus test of equality in a society. If we have large gaps between rich and poor in our education system, it's telling us that we also have large gaps in our society. At the end of the day, education is the fundamental equaliser."

Dr Emma Rowe, Research for Educational Impact (REDI)