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.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”