education donations

Q&A: How have large donations affected education policy in New York City?

The expansion of charter schools, the movement to break New York City’s large schools into smaller ones, and the push to teach computer science have something in common: the influence of philanthropy.

Though contributions from big donors amount to only a fraction of the city’s education spending, they still have a real impact on public school policy, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College. Henig recently co-authored a book called “The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy and Reform,” which details how powerful individuals and organizations increasingly use donations to advance policies they support.

For politicians everywhere, the tension is clear: As they welcome funds to support schools, they also run the risk of allowing, or appearing to allow, others to influence their agendas.

Philanthropy’s influence grew under the Bloomberg administration, which courted big donors as it pushed aggressive policy changes that sparked backlash from the teachers union and many parent groups. De Blasio has found himself facing a different set of issues. Though his policies appeal to groups that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg alienated, he’s struggled to raise as much money for the Fund for Public Schools, the nonprofit Bloomberg created to attract private donors.

Chalkbeat talked to Henig, who is moderating a panel at Teachers College on education philanthropy on Wednesday, about the changing landscape of donations, how the changes played out under Bloomberg and de Blasio, and what lessons can be drawn from Newark, which received a high-profile $100 million gift to improve its schools and is still struggling to balance big changes and community concerns. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Why is education philanthropy important?

Henig: While the vast bulk of the funding for K-12 education in the U.S. still comes through the public sector and tax revenues, the public sector generally has been squeezed in recent years and resistant to tax increases. Local leaders, whether they’re progressive leaders like de Blasio or corporate, Republican-style like Bloomberg, find that philanthropic support is an important source of discretionary funds.

How do those funds differ from public funds?

They’re much more flexible. They can be targeted more quickly in the directions of support or new priorities. They’re less subject to certain rules about transparency and public control than publicly raised revenues.

What’s the “new education philanthropy”?

The foundation community is large and diverse, and many of the initiatives they’ve undertaken have been a positive way of supplementing public dollars or nurtured innovations that later other communities and public leaders embraced. I would not be among those who would argue that philanthropy in education is in itself a threat. I think it’s something to be welcomed.

What I do share is concern about what Rick Hess and I would call the new education philanthropy. In particular, the tendency of some large donors to be much more intentional in their use of money to change policy, to use philanthropy to fund research intended to support their vision, and to fund advocacy. In the backdrop of huge inequity and wealth … more and more there are a small number of private donors that may have a disproportionate impact on what government does.

How did Bloomberg use private funds?

Under Mayor Bloomberg, and particularly in the early years under Joel Klein, there were two broad ways by which philanthropy of different kinds worked with the city on schools issues.

One way is through partnerships where donors already supported initiatives that the administration thought were important, things like the Leadership Academy [the fast-track principal-training program created in 2003], things like the small schools movement. Because of the private dollars, the administration had more leeway to take a chance. Then, when some of those initiatives had either proven themselves or developed a constituency, they could then work them into the operating budget.

The other is what I might characterize as parallel play. The donor community was giving money [to causes] that the administration also supported, but not by way of the administration. That’s one of the most important stories in terms of charter schools.

How did that play out?

Particularly early in the Bloomberg administration, the charter school community was relatively small. When they weren’t politically powerful, it would have been hard for the mayor and chancellor to directly become heavily involved in a hands-on way in funding charters. The UFT and many parents see charters as competitors to the public school system, so I think they were quite happy to see private donors giving in a way that the administration could say, “That’s not us.”

How did philanthropy change under de Blasio?

The donors who were important under the Bloomberg administration were motivated by their support for some specific kinds of reform, including school choice, including small schools, including quantitative evaluation of teachers, and teacher and school accountability. Many of those donors were concerned, and in some cases, more than concerned, about the transition from Bloomberg to the de Blasio administration and much less willing to partner with an administration that they weren’t sure shared the same goals.

There are probably less overall [donations under de Blasio], especially from some of the large, high profile providers. But there are local donors who want to work with this administration. [The fund raised $18 million last fiscal year compared to an average of $29 million per year in the previous decade, according to the New York Times.] In some cases, those donors are shifting their emphasis and participating a little more. They’re shifting from a heavy emphasis on charters and accountability to initiatives the administration has identified like universal pre-K and community schools.

Increasingly, some of those donors are paying more attention to advocacy, creating at least the appearance, if not the reality, of grassroots support. That idea of working through community-based support is one that I think de Blasio, by his background, is more attuned to than Mayor Bloomberg, coming from his business background.

Bloomberg was more able to tap into the philanthropic community and wealthy donors that he and the chancellor thought were correct. De Blasio, because of his background, is more alert to, and sensitive to, nurture the grassroots support. He’s a pragmatist, which means he’s not going to turn his back on funding if he needs it, but he’s less likely to have a one-dimensional view.

What should New Yorkers learn from Newark? [In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to that city to improve its struggling school system. The next five years were documented in “The Prize” by Dale Russakoff, which Chalkbeat excerpted here.]

The lesson many draw there is that an outside donor there, with little knowledge of Newark or the priorities of the community, funneled in substantial resources. But those were regarded skeptically by locals. Much of their support went to consultants and donors who were not deeply rooted in the community. Some argue that the initiative, even some elements that might have made sense, backfired and generated political backlash that helped to elect a mayor who had a different vision of what the schools should do.

The Newark case is just a really dramatic example. The phenomenon of an aggressive pursuit of a particular vision of school reform, school choice, market competition, accountability, marketability to high-stakes testing — that agenda in a number of places was pursued so aggressively and with such urgency that it failed to build a local supportive coalition and in many circumstances produced backlash.

At what cost

Adams 14 looking for grants first, as it prepares to pay for an external manager

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

About to embark on a search for a manager to run its district, Adams 14 officials have been looking at how to pay for that external management.

Although the state ordered that the district hand over management to a third party, following years of low performance, the order doesn’t come with money. Many community members have been wondering where the funds will come from.

Sean Milner, the district’s executive director of budget, operations and construction, said the best guess district officials have right now is that external management could cost $600,000 per year.

The cost of the contract isn’t yet clear. It’s hard to even estimate the cost since Adams 14 is the first district the state Board of Education has ordered to seek outside management.

The actual cost won’t be pinned down until after a group is selected and a contract is negotiated. The district will call for proposals requesting to know the qualifications of interested outside groups, but those will not include the cost of their work. The Colorado State Board of Education must vote to approve the selected manager before the district proceeds with a contract.

It’s possible the district will get help, at least to cover a portion of the management costs.

Adams 14 officials already applied to the state for a grant of up to $200,000 per year. There are no guarantees that Adams 14 will get that money, as they are competing with other districts that need help improving.

Colorado Department of Education officials would not comment on applications under review, but said that districts like Adams 14 that are following State Board directives receive priority for what the state calls Transformation grant dollars.

Officials are also searching for other grants to cover another $200,000. If they are successful, that could leave about $200,000 for the district to cover.

District officials said they hope that by shifting money they might be able to free up enough money from the general fund, without having to make large budget cuts. Work on the budget for 2019-20 is just beginning.

And if need be, district officials said they have informally received the school board’s verbal approval to use some of the district’s $14 million reserves.

So far, officials have looked at other districts that have gone through similar contracts in Indiana and Massachusetts. Those districts are larger than Adams 14’s 7,500-student-district. In their estimates, Adams 14 officials are also considering there may be extra costs associated if a selected partner isn’t local. The possibility also exists that Adams 14 may choose a public entity such as a school district, (Mapleton has already expressed interest), and those contracts could cost less.

Community members have asked if certain district positions, especially that of the superintendent, will duplicates the job of the external manager. Board member Bill Hyde wondered at a public board meeting earlier this year if the district would be paying twice for the same work.

Just earlier this year, the Adams 14 school board raised Superintendent Javier Abrego’s annual salary to $169,125.

The school board, which retained ultimate authority to hire or fire anyone in the district, may have to consider district positions as it finalizes the 2019-20 budget. Or the external manager, once on board, could make recommendations about staffing.

The state order requires that the district’s contract with an external manager start by July, but district officials are planning for an earlier start, potentially in March or April.

If that happens, the district would amend the current school year’s $130 million budget to use curriculum funds to pay for the outside manager for the remainder of this school year.

Officials said they’re being conservative in new spending, given that whoever comes in to run the district soon might have new ideas about programs or curriculum.

“We’re not stopping anything we have in progress,” Milner said. Some teacher training for curriculum still has to happen, for instance, he said. “But if there were new items to put in place, at this time we’re kind of holding off.”

major grants

Tennessee’s turnaround district wins big chunk of $8.25 million grant for school improvement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A student at Libertas School of Memphis spells out words next to pictures as part of his independent learning time at the Montessori school in the Frayser community. The school is one of 10 in the state awarded a new school improvement grant.

Ten schools throughout Tennessee that are academically behind are divvying up $8.25 million in new federal grants for school improvement, the state Department of Education announced Monday.

Each school will receive $275,000 per year over three years to total $825,000. Four schools in the state’s turnaround Achievement School District netted the competitive grants, which are going to be used for bolstering strong leadership, talent management, effective instruction, and student support.

The money will be a welcome boost to the state-run district, which is tasked with improving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically. The grants give schools the flexibility to add staff members or new programs to areas that will help their students improve, which is especially helpful to the schools that serve students in low-income areas and have historically been under-enrolled and under-funded.

For Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, the new funding will go toward reading intervention for its middle school students, and more behavior and social work support.

“We know that one of the biggest difference makers for our kids is the ability to read and read well,” said James Dennis, interim leader of Memphis Scholars. “The grant will be a steroid shot to our efforts to meet our kids where they are. It will also go toward additional wraparound services, behavior and social work support. It will help us get to the bottom of some of the issues preventing our students from learning at high levels.”

The schools awarded are:

  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District
  • Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, Achievement School District
  • LEAD Neely’s Bend Middle School, Achievement School District
  • Libertas at Brookmeade, Achievement School District
  • Antioch Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County Schools
  • McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • McMurray Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • The Howard School, Hamilton County Schools

These grants are provided through Title I funds from the U.S. Department of Education and must be used to support schools on the state’s lists of academically struggling schools.

“It is imperative that we provide additional support to schools that serve our students who are furthest behind and believe it is important to allow districts the autonomy to leverage what works in their local schools,” outgoing Education Commission Candice McQueen said.

It’s significant that four of the 30 schools in the Achievement School District made it through the competitive statewide application, said Sharon Griffin, leader of the district and assistant commissioner for school turnaround.

It’s “a tremendous accomplishment for our district and our operators,” Griffin said. “It’s even more impressive to know that we are the one school district in West Tennessee to have schools that were approved.”

For Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, the announcement of the new funding fell on the first day of school after three weeks of heating problems. Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said it made the day even more of a celebration.

“This funding over three years is going to be huge for this school, as well as the other schools awarded for turnaround strategies,” White said.