Are foundations impervious to evidence? That question was raised at a recent conference on funding for K-12 education reform at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“With the Best of Intentions: Lessons Learned in K-12 Education Philanthropy” was convened by Frederick Hess of AEI to examine philanthropy’s effectiveness in reforming education. As Hess remarks, it wasn’t a meeting to sing philanthropy’s praises, but to engage in some “serious intellectual discussion” about what is and isn’t working in education reform.
One overarching point was made by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute. Greene observed that philanthropic dollars alone will never be enough to change schools, because there simply aren’t enough dollars to accomplish the task: It’s “like trying to reshape the ocean with buckets of water.” To drive this home, Greene noted that in 2002, public spending on K-12 schooling nationwide topped $8,900 per pupil. The per-pupil spending by the 30 foundations that spent the most on education came to just $14.
Conference papers and a transcript are available from AEI.
The solution, Greene argued, is for philanthropists to spend their dollars so that they redirect how public funds are spent. He cited several ways this can be done:
· support research and advocacy efforts that affect public spending;
· create new types of schools or administrative structures to which public dollars will flow;
· develop alternative professional associations that can alter the political activities of educators or government regulations affecting who becomes an educator.
Donald McAdams of the Center for Reform of School Systems discussed research he and Lynn Jenkins have done to discern the impact of philanthropy in three urban school districts—Charlotte, Houston, and San Diego. Each of the three cities received significant private sums (roughly $10 million in Charlotte, $40 million in San Diego, and $100 million in Houston). McAdams and Jenkins concluded that when the work funded by those dollars was clearly defined and courageous leaders had clear plans for using the money, then philanthropy had a significant impact—for example, San Diego under the leadership of superintendent Alan Bersin. But that same city struck a gloomy note in an exchange between Dan Katzir of the Eli Broad Foundation, which invested much money there under Bersin’s tenure, and Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent. Fuller noted that Broad’s efforts had achieved much success, yet are being undone now that Bersin has effectively been ousted by enemies of reform.
Bryan Hassel of Public Impact expressed concern that too many of the philanthropic dollars for K-12 reforms are coming from too few sources. Examining the money spent on choice-reform programs in 2002, for example, Hassel notes the 50 foundations making the greatest amount of grants in this area contributed some $175 million. Take away the grants made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, however, and the total giving by the remaining 48 foundations was just over $22 million.
On the other hand, Hassel said, the good news is that concentrated dollars can have a tremendous impact. For example, voucher programs would not exist but for the efforts of a few philanthropies. The bad news, said Kim Smith of New Schools Venture Fund, is that the small number of donors is sometimes bad for grantees, who become afraid to undertake experiments that might jeopardize their funding stream. “More funders,” Smith says, are critical to developing a “healthy practitioner side.”
But are enough foundations willing to pick up the mantle of education reform? The Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless discussed his survey of foundation program officers, which showed that, as a group, program officers tend to be weaker on three issues critical to successful reform—discipline, improving students’ basic skills, and improving student accountability—than the general public, or parents, or teachers, or even education professors (who are notoriously hostile to reform).
Summing up the conference, Hess sees it as only a start and hopes for much more research and discussion. “This conference rightly encouraged more scrutiny, objective research, and ‘straight talk’ about education philanthropy,” says Stephanie Saroki, director of K-12 education at The Philanthropy Roundtable. She concluded by quoting a remark of Stefanie Sanford of the Gates Foundation: “It doesn’t help the work of philanthropists to ‘never to be told you have a bad idea.’”
Michael Hartmann is director of research and evaluation at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.