If only money and good intentions were required to fix what’s wrong with this nation’s primary and secondary education system, it would be fixed. After all, the past several decades have seen a number of well-funded education reform efforts launched to great fanfare. Government at every level has poured tens of billions of dollars into the system in support of everything from better teacher training to after-school programs to classroom technology. Philanthropists have added many millions more, sometimes in small increments, sometimes in huge grants such as Ambassador Walter Annenberg’s half-billion-dollar gift in 1993.
Inevitably, these efforts barely make a dent in the system before disappearing, usually in the face of fierce criticism from the education establishment. The evidence of the failure of most education reform efforts is all around us: test scores are still flat, minority and poor children continue to lag well behind their peers, colleges are forced to offer remedial courses in math and writing to high school graduates, and employers remain dependent on overseas schools to supply workers prepared for high-tech jobs.
But reform-minded philanthropists shouldn’t lose hope. Despite the challenges, there is no arena where savvy donors could make as profound a difference as in primary and secondary education. To succeed in improving the system, donors have to be uncommonly canny and strategic thinkers. They also need a well-grounded plan to guide their giving. Real change does not “just happen.” Instead, it proceeds from a clearly defined set of principles and goals. You start by being clear about the intended result, then select a strategy to attain it.
There are four “theories of change” common to education reform philanthropy. To be blunt, two of them rarely work, if by work we mean “foster the transformation of the school system.” These two theories trust that, with additional support and some tinkering around the edges, the present system can improve. By contrast, the third and fourth theories create outside pressure to make the system change whether it wants to or not. These hold greater promise of fostering actual improvement.
Tinkering at the Edges
The first theory of change—call it “providing resources to the system”—assumes that the people running public schools are well intentioned and competent but lack the means to make necessary improvements. Philanthropists following this approach funnel resources directly into public schools to help pay for new technology, teacher awards, field trips, tutors and mentors, additional staff, new textbooks, or extra help for kids with problems.
The second theory—call it “supplying expertise”—also grants the good intentions of the school system but assumes it lacks the requisite expertise to effect improvements. Donors in this vein seek to boost performance by providing schools with experts, advisors, and trainers, sometimes through intermediary nonprofit organizations that work in “partnership” with the system itself.
Most education philanthropy rests atop one or both of these theories of change, and donors who ascribe to them say they are “helping” rather than “transforming” public schools. The system prefers this kind of giving, since education bureaucrats and their allies oppose nearly every reform strategy that would change the system in a fundamental way or shift power from administrators to parents. Even business leaders often abandon their customary focus on the bottom line when they give to education, lest they risk being labeled enemies of the public schools. It’s much nicer—and better from a public relations standpoint—to be thanked by the superintendent.
To be fair, these traditional theories of change can sometimes yield results, particularly when philanthropists are supporting or supplying expertise to a sound transformation strategy that’s already underway. (For examples of each theory employed successfully, see the Sidebars.) Most of the time, though, adding resources to the existing system—or to experts “working with” it—doesn’t produce improvements, since the system has shown itself time and again to be incapable of changing from the inside. That’s why, for example, the Annenberg Challenge grants failed to live up to the high expectations that surrounded them—the money was simply absorbed into the existing system, leaving nary a trace.
Challenging the System
A more fruitful change theory is “standards-based reform,” which seeks to develop ambitious academic standards that spell out the skills and knowledge children should learn; to create reliable and concrete assessments of whether learning is taking place; and to impose accountability measures with teeth—rewards and sanctions that motivate students, educators, schools, and school systems to ensure that all children meet the standards.
This theory holds that the surest way to elicit stronger performance is to set clear goals for students and schools, then reward success in meeting those goals and impose consequences in the event of failure. Today, nearly every state has some sort of standards-based reform strategy underway, and new legislation meant to tug states further in this direction has been signed by President Bush. Myriad opportunities exist for education donors to ensure that their states and communities support effective standards-based reform.
But the most transformative theory of change—what could be called “market-based reforms”—holds that competition among education providers will raise all boats—that is, all schools will be improved when they must work to attract their students (and revenue). This is an anti-trust strategy, yet more than economic and political theory is involved. There’s a compelling social justice argument as well. For the wealthy, educational options are plentiful; they can move to neighborhoods with good schools or opt for private ones.
For the poor, though, bad schools are traps that perpetuate illiteracy, poverty, and crime. Introducing competition into the system benefits these disadvantaged youngsters because it gives them better options in the near term, while prodding the “system” to become more responsive over the long run.
Here, finally, is an opportunity tailor-made for philanthropists. The “school choice” reforms advocated by proponents of theory four—private scholarship funds, advocacy on behalf of publicly funded vouchers, charter schools, education tax credits—are areas where donors have made a serious difference.
Money Where Their Mouths Are
In the last decade, education donors have pioneered school choice models that are rapidly changing the education landscape. Perhaps the best-known example is the combined $100 million provided by Wal-Mart heir John Walton and New York investor Theodore Forstmann to found the Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1998. CSF provides tuition assistance to the families of primary and secondary students to attend the private or religious school of their choice. This aid is based entirely on need, not merit—essentially, these are privately funded vouchers.
To ensure that parents remain involved in their child’s education, the vouchers do not fully cover tuition needs. Despite this requirement—and refuting the frequent claim that low-income families are apathetic about their children’s schooling—there were 1.25 million applications for the 40,000 scholarships CSF offered in its first year.
Neither Walton nor Forstmann would suggest, however, that privately supported voucher programs can make up for the failings of the education system and relieve it of the imperative to change. They have put their money where their mouths are—toward providing low-income students with more and better educational choices—but with the ultimate goal of inducing the government to adopt the practice. John Walton also generously funds national organizations that advocate for publicly funded voucher programs and other school choice reforms, like the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Children First America, and the American Education Reform Council. Through his family’s foundation, Walton has also supported the start-up and development of dozens of charter schools and support organizations throughout the nation. Likewise, Forstmann has launched Parents in Charge, a group that advocates an array of education reforms.
Of course, not every philanthropist has the resources or inclination to work at the national level. Many new education philanthropists focus on an individual state, city, or community, supporting school choice reforms in a defined geographic area to motivate the transformation of its local school system. These local heroes may not receive the national attention and acclaim of a Forstmann or Walton, but to students and families in their hometowns, they are making a tangible difference.
One such local hero is businessman John Kirtley, who made his fortune at a young age and—still in his thirties—is spending as much of it as he can to benefit Florida’s children. A founder and now managing general partner of FCP Investors, Kirtley has long supported the notion that public schools could use a mighty injection of competition. When Walton and Forstmann announced the creation of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, Kirtley was one of the first to step up and provide local matching funds (an initial pledge of $1.5 million over four years). His CSF Tampa Bay now provides 325 low-income students with the opportunity to attend the private school of their choice.
Meanwhile, Kirtley has pushed Florida legislators to provide publicly funded vouchers for the state’s needy students. Frustrated that the Florida voucher program enacted in 1999 only applies to students in schools deemed by the state to be failing for two out of four years—limitations that in practice have been unwieldy and led to benefits for only a handful of students—Kirtley started working a different angle: the tuition tax credit.
Under pressure from Kirtley and his allies, the state legislature enacted a tax credit program last spring that will allow Florida corporations to write off donations to private voucher programs. This program will allow as much as $50 million of government money each year to follow students to the private schools of their choice. Kirtley is now busy helping to raise “supply side” funds to help Florida’s private schools expand to meet the demand sure to be created by the tax credit program.
Reform in the Heartland
On the education reform radar screen, a handful of American communities glow much more brightly than the rest. Two of the most visible are Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Dayton, Ohio. Milwaukee boasts the nation’s preeminent publicly funded voucher program, while Dayton is home to a strong privately financed voucher program and one of the fastest growing charter school markets in the country. These developments occurred in no small part thanks to local philanthropists and foundations who believe in the power of school choice reforms to transform entire education systems. Two forward-thinking and tenacious leaders stand out: Michael Joyce, who until recently headed the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, and Chester E. Finn Jr., a Dayton native who heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Milwaukee and Dayton were both ripe for radical change. After years of middle-class and white flight—exacerbated by forced busing policies—both cities had predominantly African-American and low-income populations trapped in cycles of failing schools, illiteracy, high dropout rates, crime, and poverty. To no avail, community leaders had long tried to prod the local school systems to improve, and frustration ran high.
Milwaukee’s answer to these challenges was the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which has supplied school vouchers to low-income students since its inception in 1990. The program has been supported by a unique and diverse coalition that includes grassroots activists, civil rights leaders, government officials from both sides of the aisle, business leaders, education donors, and parents. But this single-issue coalition surely would have foundered without the private funding that allowed it to take on the Goliath of the public schools establishment.
The Bradley Foundation, under Joyce’s direction, was the most generous member of the Milwaukee school choice coalition. When the state legislature enacted the original school voucher program, it was limited to 1 percent of the Milwaukee public schools’ enrollment and to non-religious private schools. Knowing that far more students would benefit if religious schools were included in the program, the Bradley Foundation provided the first grants of what would eventually total $8 million to help low-income Milwaukee students attend parochial schools if their parents chose.
Parents whose children benefited from the privately funded vouchers then joined forces with Bradley and others to press the state legislature to include religious schools in the publicly funded program. In 1995 their joint efforts were successful, and the program was expanded to include these schools and to serve up to 15,000 students.
The expansion, however, was challenged in the courts and stuck in limbo for three long years. During this time, Bradley made funds available to help defray hefty legal costs and to provide tuition assistance to Milwaukee students who had planned to participate. The Bradley Foundation was willing to fund the necessary (and considerable) expenses needed to win the school choice battle in the short term to ensure that, ultimately, government funds would be leveraged instead. Eventually the Wisconsin Supreme Court deemed the expanded voucher program constitutional in 1998.
Today, over 10,000 low-income students in Milwaukee use publicly funded vouchers to attend the private schools of their choice, several thousand more attend a new crop of charter schools, and the traditional public schools have awakened like a sleeping giant to start competing for students. Slick new television ads, pledges to parents, and union-defying school board decisions suggest the schools are readying for the competition. Meanwhile the Bradley Foundation has continued its commitment to school choice since Joyce’s departure, announcing a $20 million grant—its largest gift ever—to finance capital expenditures at Milwaukee choice schools.
Working in Tandem
As in Milwaukee, Dayton has an ample supply of community leaders dedicated to improving the education available to Dayton students, and they come from every corner of the community. The trustees of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, named for the late industrialist who created it nearly half a century ago, moved the foundation from Dayton to D.C. to persuade reform advocate and Dayton native Chester Finn to take on its presidency in 1996. Since then, the foundation has operated as a hybrid, funding programs on the ground in Ohio as well as education research and projects of national interest.
Under Finn’s leadership, the foundation’s Dayton program has helped launch and develop a private voucher program for low-income students; supported the start-up and development of several local charter schools, some through a charter school “incubator” it created; helped launch an “Education Resource Center” for public, charter, and private schools at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce; and undertaken a variety of local research projects on academic achievement in Dayton and on the public reaction to local education reforms.
Finn stresses that the foundation’s Dayton efforts are most successful when it works closely with other foundations, the business community, government, schools, and parents. The effect of these efforts has been to shake up the status quo in the city: This fall, Dayton residents elected a slate of reform-minded individuals to form the new majority of the school board. This group—rejected by the local teachers’ union, which normally rules such elections—campaigned on a pledge of taking the bold steps necessary to turn the Dayton schools around. While it is too soon to see if the schools are ready to step up to the plate, this is a very promising sign.
Long experience shows that reforming education is a difficult task, even with plenty of cash and good intentions. Nothing is more resistant to change than our public education system. For philanthropists tired of fighting the status quo, the most promising approaches are those that create new opportunities for children while putting pressure on the system to reform its offerings.
Kelly Amis is co-author of Making It Count: A guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy; founder and president of Education Allies, Inc; and president of a small family foundation that supports education reform.