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.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.