Collaboration Among Several Themes at Roundtable’s National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy
Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, implored K-12 education donors to continue supporting the work of educating a 21st century workforce for a 21st century economy at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., April 27-28.
“Your role, I think, is to play the role of tearing down barriers, of being the R&D arm of the next generation of how we educate, and being vigilant to make sure that the rest of us are focused on what works rather than defending what doesn’t,” Bush said.
Bush explained that when America is at its best, a person can earn success no matter how he starts life. However, our current education system is an outdated model that fails to give students the skills they need to actually achieve success, which results in an ever-growing income inequality gap.
“The stratification in society that we are seeing is a direct result of our inability to ensure everybody has the right to rise in our society,” Bush said.
Bush insisted that people working in the education space need to find new avenues to build coalitions – specifically from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down – to better serve children. He asserted that it is time to let go of the arguments of the past and instead converge on improving a system of education that currently serves a world economy that has moved far beyond it.
“Let’s stop with the political argument that people on the outside say that the public school system stinks and people inside the public school system say it’s fantastic. That’s a false choice. That’s an argument that’s irrelevant. What we should do is start with the premise that if you think it’s great, it needs to get greater. If you think it’s ok, it needs to get great. And if you think that it’s failing, as it is for too many children, in my opinion, then you have to believe that it has to get better,” Bush said
Bush’s plea to move beyond arguments of the past and instead focus on coalition building and positive messaging was a common refrain during the two-day forum in the nation’s capital. During a special session of the forum on the power of messaging and public relations to advance charter schooling, Peri Lynn Turnbull, senior vice president for the California Charter Schools Association, shared with attendees the messages that are most effective in educating the public about charter schools.
“I do not advocate running head-to-head with the unions,” said Turnbull. “They are extremely coordinated and well resourced.”
CCSA received funding to conduct intensive research in the Bay Area on which messages and messengers would resonate with undecided residents on the topic of charter schools. Among the key takeaways from the research was charter school advocates are using ineffective messaging, and have failed to educate the public about how to even define what a charter school is.
“We have to go back to the start. For 25 years, we have told a lot of data stories, we’ve told a lot of emotional stories, we have blamed the traditional public school system, but we have failed to tell the story that charter schools are public schools, tuition free and they educate all children,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull stressed that the charter school sector needs to educate first with a positive messaging strategy rather than going negative on the traditional school spectrum. Micheal Flaherty echoed Turnbull’s call to stick with telling the story of student achievement in charter schools. Flaherty is the executive producer of STEP, a documentary about the high school step team of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) a public charter school in Baltimore, Maryland.
“This movie is Rocky. It’s not a movie about education reform. It is about a group of strong, tough, committed girls who overcome way more obstacles than any of us would know about and they succeed against every possible barrier because they stick together, they have great leadership, and they are not only transforming their lives but generations of lives,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty, who also produced education-related films Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down, believes that by telling human interest stories of charter schools like BLSYW that don’t focus on education reform or school governance, it will counter the perception painted by defenders of the status quo.
“When people see this movie, they will be so moved to tears at these real girls and what they overcome,” Flaherty added. “We are just going to inspire people and get people excited and say, ‘I want to go to a school like that.’”
Following the panel discussion, donors saw an incredible step team performance by the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW.
The Necessary Conditions for Philanthropic Investment in Districts
The collaborative theme continued on the forum’s second day as the morning plenary session examined long-term philanthropic investments given either directly to, or in support of, school district improvement efforts. One of the session’s objectives was to discuss the reticence on the part of donors to support traditional public districts over time, and ways to create favorable conditions for “big bets” on district investment.
The panel featured philanthropists who have worked with traditional school districts. Each panelist offered their insight as to the challenges and successes they have seen in these efforts, including revamping the learning environment within the current system.
“You’ve got to transform the educational system, not at the governance level – but at the place of contact,” said Gisele Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation.
The Hume Foundation has made a series of small investments aimed at advancing blended learning options throughout the country. The Foundation takes a venture capitalist approach making grants with the understanding that things may not pan out. The grants are also never given to the district directly but to a third party organization that works within the district.
“They implement the blended learning options and then we move on,” Huff reiterated.
Bruno Manno, senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation, believes that partnering with school districts is not the takeaway but rather the change in the notion of how school districts are changing their structures to be more nimble and autonomous.
When discussing the recent $2.1 million Walton investment into Atlanta Public Schools, Manno referenced turnaround strategy for low-performing schools, grant evaluation, direct school support, and a data system for families as conditions for making the investment.
Manno alluded to districts in states such as Indiana, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Louisiana that have changed in both funding and governance structures. Seemingly reiterating what Bush said the day before, school districts are often characterized as a centuries old institution with a centralized bureaucracy, an elected school board, and a superintendent.
“I’m not so sure that this is a story about any particular change in strategy as it is an interesting story of how the district has changed and how there are now all kinds of opportunities that exist that never existed before for donors,” Manno said.
David Harris, founder and CEO of the Mind Trust, stated that without the current governance model in Indianapolis with mayoral control and autonomy for schools outside collective bargaining agreements, it would’ve been “inconceivable” for the Mind Trust to be making the sorts of the investments they’re making in school incubation and turnaround.
Learning from DC
The forum’s final plenary featured Katherine Bradley, founding chair of CityBridge Education, who explained D.C.’s “moment of success” in both the charter and district sectors, and described what is taking place in D.C. to avoid complacency. D.C. public schools educate more than 87,000 students, 80 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced meals and 46 percent are considered at-risk. Around 55 percent of students in D.C. attend a traditional public school while 45 percent of students attend a public charter school.
“These two sectors have been talking to each other in an interesting way over the last two decades,” Bradley said.
Bradley shared the rapid change around human capital and innovation under D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s watch from 2007-2010, which she said stabilized the D.C. public school structure and allowed parents to gain confidence in the system. The momentum has continued under successive chancellors, Kaya Henderson and Antwan Wilson. The academic performance of D.C. public school students has dramatically increased in the decade since. In 2007, only 14 percent of 4th grade students in D.C. were proficient or above in math and reading. By 2015, the proficiency rate increased to 31 percent in math and 27 percent in reading.
“It really starts with the 1995 charter school law that was passed by Congress and it goes straight through the fact that we have had four mayors in a row who have been strong on education – and this is important – none of whom have bowed to political pressure to roll back any of the reform agenda here,” Bradley said.
Bradley also moderated a panel discussing the factors and players within D.C. that are continuing the push for education reform and improvement.
“I think one of the things that we’ve seen in D.C. is that we’ve seen these great reforms that have allowed us to make this change for kids but you kind of get to this plateau while you still have to scale the mountain,” said Maya Martin, executive director of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, which aims to have parents partner with city leaders to advance education improvement in D.C. “Parents’ voices have to be there because they are the voters. They are the ones who can make a difference.”
“I think the two big shifts that have taken place over the last 20 years in this town, in terms of education, are the upper income white families have come back to public schools…and we’ve created, primarily through the charter schools, but also through the district schools, pathways to college for high-achieving, low-income students,” said Steve Bumbaugh, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. “The next phase of innovation in our schools is how to get those students [with multiple risk factors] through school and to a right-fit college.”
This was the 16th National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy hosted by The Philanthropy Roundtable. In addition to the plenary sessions, this year’s event highlighted D.C.'s unique ecosystem through visits to local schools, multiple breakout sessions, and roundtable discussions.
Breakout sessions featured topics that ran the gamut from early childhood development, school choice at the federal level, successful coalition building, teacher development, and effective family engagement. More than 150 donors from across the country attended.