National funders spur grassroots reform

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Just as two citywide watchdog groups shut their doors last month for lack of funding, national and local donors are poised to give away some $2.4 million over the next three years to broad-based groups of grassroots activists for select school reform efforts.

This pot of money, known as the Fund for Education Organizing, is earmarked for community organizing projects that focus on education inequality and improving performance for poor and minority students.

“This initiative is a way to give voice to those who don’t often get a seat at the policymaking table—parents and students,” says Program Manager Julie Kohler. “Parents and students are critical, independent voices in school reform debates. They don’t have a political agenda; their only agenda is to improve local schools.”

So far, six national foundations—Ford Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among them—have raised close to $5 million for school reform organizing in Chicago and three other urban areas: Philadelphia, Denver and several districts in New Jersey. In each area, local foundations are expected to pledge matching funding. Chicago, for instance, is already eligible for $760,000 this year, Kohler notes.

Funders see organized networks of parents and community leaders as key to sustaining school improvement. “What we’ve seen in other places is a school system announcing a major reform initiative, then [district leadership] changes and the initiative is abandoned,” says Jeff Pinzino of The Woods Fund of Chicago, which is leading local grantmaking out of the fund. “Community voices can bring ongoing pressure.”

Meanwhile, the voices of two more citywide school reform groups have been silenced.

Both Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a group that kept tabs on the districtwide budget and pushed for local control, and Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which kept an eye on capital spending and public school closings, ceased operations in February.

The closings follow the demise in recent years of a number of school reform advocacy groups that supported local school councils, signaling a shift in Chicago’s philanthropic and business leaders’ views on how best to invest their contributions to public education.

More likely to pay off, in their view, are direct investments in teacher training, curricula, student learning and creating new schools. Schools CEO Arne Duncan has been particularly successful in courting foundation support.

Since he took over the district in 2001, foundation and corporate investment in Chicago Public Schools grew from $2 million to $29 million last year. (See Catalyst, May 2006)

Less favored are advocacy organizations that speak out on reform issues, but have limited impact.

Such groups are often “voices in the wilderness,” Pinzino says. The coalitions of community-based organizations that will be supported by the education organizing fund offer the possibility of creating a broad political force that will drive and sustain school reform, he explains.

But longtime reformers see it differently. “The critics are being taken down one after another,” says Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), who describes her own 20-year-old advocacy group’s financial situation as “grim.”

Shift to bottom-line results

Cross City Campaign, Neighborhood Capital Budget Group and a host of other advocacy and reform watchdogs were founded during the first wave of Chicago’s school reform movement, when central office was seen as a major impediment to raising student achievement, and decentralized decisionmaking a big part of the solution.

Both aimed to get information into the hands of local decisionmakers. Neighborhood Capital Budget Group analyzed city spending on school construction, public transportation, and economic development and pushed for investment in low-income communities. Cross City Campaign, a national federation based in Chicago, organized across nine school districts to spread its analysis of district budgets and central office management.

“These were groups that provided resources and ideas about school reform that the rest of us didn’t have the capacity to do,” says Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop.

Klonsky says foundations have moved from driving innovation at the grassroots level to exerting “tremendous power over school decisions” through alliances with district leadership. “Fundamental decisions about public space and public education are being made by [a foundation board] that isn’t elected and isn’t accountable to anybody,” he argues.

Some advocacy groups are harder pressed to find funding as foundations shift from the “let every flower bloom” philosophy that characterized the first wave of school reform toward a more results-oriented approach that is compatible with today’s focus on school accountability, some observers note.

“There is a trend in the foundation world to try to demonstrate impact,” explains Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation. That has led the city’s largest foundations, including Joyce, to narrow their focus to fewer education issues.

Joyce, for instance, selected teacher quality, early childhood education and charter schools as targets for its grantmaking. Research suggested that grants in those areas could make the biggest difference, Alberding says.

Another local foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, has zeroed in on literacy, ongoing training for teachers and school leaders, and creating new schools. While research suggests that programs with more direct impact on teaching, curriculum and instruction are more effective, some advocates remained stuck on local school governance as the main strategy for school reform, says President and CEO Terry Mazany.

Cross City Campaign won a grant from Joyce to study the distribution of experienced teachers in Chicago but found it harder to get money for its ongoing budget analysis project, says Executive Director Diana Nelson.

Cross City Campaign also tried to earn a living by charging school districts for its work, such as writing a local school council training manual for CPS and a report for Milwaukee Public Schools. But it wasn’t enough to keep them afloat. Funding slid from a high of $1.5 million in 2003 to $400,000 this year.

At Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, funding fell from $750,000 in the late 1990s to $200,000.

‘The writing on the wall’

A few old-time reformers have found ways to reinvent themselves.

Small Schools Workshop stopped relying on foundation money 10 years ago and built a consulting business that now works with urban districts across the country. “We saw the writing on the wall,” Klonsky says.

Business and Professional People for the Public Interest once focused exclusively on small schools, but has now refashioned its reform work around building relationships between principals and teachers in different types of schools, including charter and contract schools.

Building networks of schools that can hold each other accountable for improving student learning appears to be an emerging trend that also draws foundation dollars, observes Kim Zalent, BPI’s director of public education initiatives. “I’m hopeful that we’re on the leading edge of the wave,” she says.

Designs for Change, one of the last of the old-guard advocacy groups, has cut its core staff by half, but has managed to survive by tying its mission as an advocate for local control to higher student performance. “It’s really important for us to make the connection between effective LSCs and higher quality principals and, therefore, higher quality education,” says Executive Director Donald Moore.

Changing with the times has also inspired some groups to become educators themselves. United Neighborhood Organization has opened charter schools, a strategy supported by the district and a number of foundations. Logan Square Neighborhood Association trains parents as “literacy ambassadors” to help teachers train other parents in strategies for building children’s literacy at home. It also developed a program to provide teacher training to mothers who volunteered at schools, a project that inspired other communities to do the same and launched Grow Your Own Illinois.

Grow Your Own Illinois, a coalition of five established community groups aiming to improve teacher quality by training parents and community leaders to become teachers, is the type of initiative that is likely to win a grant from the Fund for Education Organizing, says Director Anne Hallett, who helped lay the groundwork for the new fund.

The fund’s grants will be targeted to networks of community groups working on one or more of the following issues: school finance reform, teacher quality, accountability, instruction, college readiness and access to higher education.

In addition to Gates and Ford, other national funders for this effort include the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation and the Prudential Foundation.

Locally, five foundations have so far chipped in to match national funds. Three of them are local: Woods, the Wieboldt Foundation and the Kaplan Family Foundation.

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.