PITTSBURGH-What if you did something outrageous-and almost no one was outraged? On July 9, 2002, with no warning, the Grable Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Pittsburgh Foundation held a press conference to announce they were suspending some of their grants to the Pittsburgh Public School System-in midstream. Three and a half million dollars that were to flow this fall into school coffers will not be there.
Maxwell King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments, knows that simply pulling funds isn’t going to fix education.
Susan Brownlee, Grable Foundation executive director, tells Philanthropy that she and her peers hoped their dramatic action would “catalyze public opinion and get the community involved.” It was a risky move. Withdrawing funds on this scale, publicly, in midstream, has no parallel in recent American philanthropy, according to David Smith of Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy.
And yet the shocking act has drawn hardly any outrage. Letters to the editors in both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are running overwhelmingly in favor of the decision. So is the banter in the city’s restaurants and bars, and on its streets. With the exception of one public criticism by David Bergholz, executive director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland, the heads of the three foundations report almost no negative responses from other foundation leaders or outside observers. Even groups that advocate for the public school system in Pittsburgh have voiced support.
Admittedly, the public schools have been shooting themselves in the foot for the past year, as school board president Jean Fink and school superintendent John Thompson have engaged in embarrassing public shouting matches. Yet the most interesting result of the foundations’ decision has been the effect on the city’s foundation, business, civic, and education leaders. Many of them have long criticized the public school leadership, but they have never been unified enough to create change. Now they are beginning to speak with a more unified voice
“I’m not naïve,” says Maxwell King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments. “We’re not going to reform education” by simply pulling funds. No doubt that’s because the Pittsburgh Public School System is deeply entrenched in its status quo, with considerable power and independence, and little accountability: The school board actually sets the taxing rates that support the schools, decides which schools will receive funding and how much, and is not overseen by any other part of city government. As King recalls, earlier this year in the midst of the Fink and Thompson dispute he and Brownlee were riding an elevator together after a meeting. Once in the lobby, Brownlee turned to him and said, “You know, Max, we have to stop funding the public schools.” What Brownlee didn’t realize was that King had been discussing this option with his staff. She had found a supporting partner.
Neither Brownlee nor King describe Pittsburgh’s schools as disastrous. But both funders realize that the schools are in a state of decline. Faith Schantz of the Pittsburgh Council for Public Education-a public school advocacy group funded in part by the Heinz, Grable, and Pittsburgh foundations-says it’s difficult to demonstrate a steady decline over the past decade because no one exam has scores that can be compared across school years. But evidence to support Brownlee’s and King’s view does exist. The most damning comes from an evaluation done by Standard & Poor’s, which recently completed a five-year study of student achievement and administrative costs for each district in Pennsylvania. The S&P study showed Pittsburgh public schools spend more on teachers and administrators per student than almost any other district in the state, with teachers’ salaries also among the state’s highest.
In return, student achievement is not good. On the state’s standardized achievement tests, scores for Pittsburgh students are above those in Philadelphia, whose school system was recently taken over by the state, but well below the state average. Worse, an above-average proportion of students in Pittsburgh rank at the lower end of state scores. Almost 40 percent of Pittsburgh public school students rank in the lowest quarter of state students.
SAT scores, another indicator of achievement, do nothing to improve the picture. Since 1997, the mean composite score for Pittsburgh public school students has fallen 19 points. On average, Pittsburgh students score 83 points below the state average.
Heinz’s King isn’t panicked over the current situation, “but this is exactly the time to take action, before the schools fall into the abyss.” Brownlee agrees. And both believe that providing new models for the public schools to follow, as well as increasing competition among public and private schools, will be an important part of arresting the decline. That’s why King and Brownlee have actively funded a number of alternatives to the public school system during their tenures, from charter and parochial schools to groups such as the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University. “We have to work inside and outside the system,” King tells Philanthropy.
Since charter school laws for the Keystone State passed in 1997, both Grable and Heinz have been actively involved in funding charters launched in Pittsburgh. Currently, all five of the city’s charter schools receive funding from both foundations. According to King, it’s too early to measure the success of these schools, though there are some positive indicators. Overall, he thinks the charters “haven’t proven their promises yet.” King is optimistic, however, about a new charter school for technology that opened this fall, which the Grable Foundation is funding too.
Heinz and Grable also both fund the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University. Led by Chenzie Grignano, the project serves as a resource center for groups interested in starting charter schools in Pennsylvania. Among the more interesting projects Grignano has been involved with is the movement toward “cyber-charter” schools. These virtual schools provide K-12 learning entirely online; Pennsylvania Learners Online was one of the first and now has some 500 students.
The possibility of school vouchers also interests King, though their future in the state is less clear. He is intrigued by the recent Supreme Court ruling that approved of vouchers, “but I don’t know what to make of it just yet.” A new bill is probably going to come before the state legislature next month, but Dennis Giorno, executive director of the REACH Alliance-a Harrisburg group that advocates school choice-says it’s “too early” to know if it has the votes and support to pass. Giorno notes that while serving as governor, Tom Ridge tried three times to get a voucher law through. Each time it was narrowly voted down.
Both Heinz and Grable stress they are not giving up on public schools entirely. “I understand the frustration of those interested in school reform,” says Brownlee, “particularly in urban areas. Looking at student achievement and dropout rates, you can get so discouraged.” Still, public schools are “where most of the kids are. And if you want to make their education better, I don’t see how you avoid dealing with the public schools and trying to make them better.”
The problem, she says, is ensuring you don’t throw “good money after bad-something that’s easy to do in public education.” Brownlee emphasizes that although the foundations pulled funding to the public schools, they are still funding programs not dependent on the school board: “We still support dozens of afterschool programs, and we are continuing our funding to them” to the tune of $700,000 to $800,000 a year.
The Business Community
The business community has also been supportive of the three foundation’s desire to shake up the education status quo. One interesting bit of feedback comes from the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Program (PUMP), a group that works to attract young urban professionals to Pittsburgh and keep them there. Its 700-odd members are the up-and-coming powerbrokers in the city, the ones who will take the city’s renaissance in the ‘90s to the next level-if they stay. In the wake of the foundations’ announcement, PUMP’s executive director Kristen Szymkowiak surveyed her members’ attitudes toward the public school system and how it affected, or would affect, their decision of where to live.
Of the respondents, 81 percent would not send their children to Pittsburgh public schools; of those living in the city who expected to have children, 48 percent said they would move to the suburbs to obtain schooling, and 46 percent said they would send their children to private schools. Among the reasons they volunteered for their choices: there are “much better alternatives” to public education; “not enough good schools”; and “I believe in the public school system, but this city’s is out of hand!”
The leaders of PUMP are not foes of public schools, and though they weren’t surprised by the survey results, they hope to change their members’ impression of the public schools. Still, the “idea that competition can improve all schools” is one that Szymkowiak agrees with. And she feels that the decision to pull funds is having a positive, energizing effect on the community. For his part, King found the PUMP survey results “arresting.” If we can’t keep these people, he asked, how can we save the city?
The city’s business leaders have also recognized the need for competition.
Consider their response to the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which passed in 2001. The law allows businesses to receive a 75 percent tax credit for contributions made to scholarship funds. The credit increases to 90 percent if the business makes a two-year commitment. According to Giorno of REACH Alliance, the law has been a smashing success across the state, but nowhere more so than in Pittsburgh. To date, the biggest winner has been the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Scholastic Opportunity Scholarship Foundation, which has received $1.9 million for children attending Catholic schools. Another big winner, the Pittsburgh Jewish Educational Improvement Foundation, has raised over $600,000.
Public Education Supporters
Surprisingly, a number of people who advocate directly or indirectly for the public school system have also backed the foundations’ decision. The Pittsburgh Council on Public Education is an independent group working to ensure that Pittsburgh’s children receive the highest quality public education. Its director, Bette Hughes, passionately defends the school system and notes that high achievers can be found in all the city’s schools. But she also concedes some schools consistently have a large number of poor achievers. The council receives funding from Grable, Heinz, and Pittsburgh foundations, and Hughes knows the directors of each. “They’ve been a tremendous supporter for a number of years,” and so the funding shut-off “was a wake-up call,” she admits.
Susan Goodwin, who was superintendent of South Side School District just outside Pittsburgh from 1993-2000, is another public school booster who supports the foundations’ decision: “It’s all about choices. It can’t be bad for anyone if [parents] make good choices.”
The most vocal critic of the foundations’ decision within the school system was probably school board president Jean Fink, who shortly after the announcement accused the foundations of trying to blackmail the board. She has since backed off that statement, in part because the public reaction to it was so strongly negative.
Most Pittsburghers who spoke with Philanthropy believe the school system’s supporters have not been more critical of the decision because the foundations have been so involved for so many years with the city’s schools. The final straw was the embarrassing conflict between the school board and the superintendent, said a school administration source who wished not to be identified, which left the foundations with little choice.
The most significant result in the days after the foundations’ announcement was the mayor’s decision to form a task force to examine the public school problem. The taskforce has 38 members, including two co-chairs. Three committees-finance, governance, and student achievement-have 12 members each.
One co-chair is Bill Trueheart, executive director of the Pittsburgh Foundation. Of the leaders of Grable, Heinz, and Pittsburgh, Trueheart is the newcomer, having taken over responsibility for the foundation in December 2001. His approach to reform differs from King’s and Brownlee’s in that he is not as supportive of school choice, partly because his foundation’s charter specifies that the foundation is to support the public schools. He argues that “competition by itself will not improve the system,” but he also knows many on the task force do not agree.
King and Brownlee will both serve on the task force, along with prominent members of the business community. The chair of the finance committee, for example, will be Louis Testoni, a managing partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Noticeably absent from the taskforce is any representative of the education community. The mayor said this was an intentional decision so the group would remain objective.
The big question is whether the task force can have any effect. The mayor has no authority over the school system, and many of the problems impeding that system, according to Szymkowiak of PUMP, are systemic issues, such as taxation (which the school board controls) and the election of school board officials (a state governance issue).
Will Pittsburgh’s upheaval come to be known as a watershed in education reform history? No, says education expert Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “There are no watersheds in education reform,” because reform will only come district by district, not state by state, or even county by county. The hope, Finn says, is that “this trickle” in Pittsburgh will “become a stream.”
Szymkowiak best summarizes the current situation: Because the foundation’s funds were pulled, “people are looking at the schools systematically now. That’s why nobody’s complaining about the decision.”
It’s too early to know if the foundations’ decision will lead to radical education reform. “I’d like to believe a sea-change is happening in Pittsburgh,” King told Philanthropy, “but I don’t see the evidence of it yet.” Still, the “outrageous” hand has been played, and played well. Real change will require keeping people focused on the larger problem and holding together the city leaders’ agreement that reform is necessary.
Martin A. Davis Jr. is managing editor of Philanthropy.