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The Education Funder’s Dilemma

An important component of today’s education reform debate is the part that philanthropists play in backing reform advocates and, in some cases, acting as change agents themselves. As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, about the foundation world’s role in reform. She is author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics and co-author of Outside Money in School Board Elections.

Porter Magee: What led you to study the foundation world and, particularly, its intersection with education reform?

Reckhow: I went to grad school right after my experience as a Teach for America corps member in Baltimore. I wasn’t sure how much I was going to end up focusing on education because I was in a political science program, but eventually I found myself working on a study of the small schools initiative in Oakland.

This was in 2005, and in the beginning I didn’t pay much attention to the role of foundations. But as I did more interviews for that project with community organization leaders, school principals and people who worked in the central office, foundations just kept coming up over and over again. It wasn’t really the point of our study but the big role that people felt foundations were playing in Oakland seemed important to me, particularly the way it worked in tension with the more grassroots and partnership-based model of change Oakland had started out with.

That proved to be a pivotal moment in time, the start of a decade of big reform efforts backed by national foundations seeking to transform the way American education works.

When you look at just how much money was being given away by national foundations—like Gates, Walton, Broad, Bloomberg, Carnegie and Ford—that alone made this trend a huge deal. That big money came together at the same time more locally focused advocacy efforts started to network together through umbrella organizations like the PIE Network. And that momentum carried into the start of the Obama administration, when the people involved in these national foundations and local advocacy efforts found themselves pushing forward reforms that were well-aligned with the new administration in Washington.

It looked like everything was lined up for big, lasting changes. But you have argued that the national funders had some blind spots.

The biggest blind spot has to do with how information flows up to these national foundation staff. There will always be a huge distance to travel between what is actually happening on the ground and the rooms where national funding decisions are made.

One way this distance plays out is in the challenges foundation staff have in getting good information about what is actually happening in these local areas. Since they aren’t actually at the table in a lot of these places when the local conversations are taking place, they end up getting very filtered information about how well their grants are working. They are highly dependent on third parties to keep them in the loop.

Another way this distance plays out is in their willingness to walk away from the changes they set in motion and even walk away from entire cities and states when it isn’t going the way they planned. For example, you saw Gates walk away from the small schools strategy and all the local partners involved in that effort. When you don’t live in these communities, it is not like you will bump into the local people you defunded while you are walking to the grocery store. You are insulated from consequences of these decisions.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that big funders have been willing to change strategies when they think things aren’t working?

That's an interesting question. In a lot of cities, large foundations were able to get an array of organizations oriented toward the foundations’ agendas. And they leveraged huge amounts of public money, including historic levels of federal funding, to match their private donations. When they decide to simply walk away from that, it deserves public scrutiny.

One theme that comes through in your writing is that these problems are compounded if a national foundation is too much in the lead or too large a share of any local initiative.

Yes, and the extreme version of that is when national foundations actually create their own local advocacy groups to advance their agenda. That is something Gates did around their teacher quality agenda in a few states. For example, in 2010 the Gates Foundation started an advocacy group Communities for Excellent Teaching (C4TE) to focus on the foundation’s four “deep dive” districts for teacher quality: Memphis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Hillsborough County, FL. By 2012, the organization had folded.

Obviously, there are challenges if you're going to work with existing local organizations. They have their own priorities. But they also have local resources and local connections, and they are more likely to have staying power.

How did this play out in the world of local politics?

We found the same challenges of distance, information and relationships when we looked at the role of national money in local school board races. Often, the national funders don’t actually know the people who are running in these races and aren’t leveraging any long-term and trusting local relationships.

It was funny talking to some of the reform-minded local candidates the national funders supported because a lot of them were genuinely awestruck that they got money from some famous, wealthy person they had never met. For example, one candidate commented: “I got a contribution from Mr. Hoffman [cofounder of LinkedIn] two or three days before the election…I never understood how that came about but appreciated the contribution.”

Often times, whether they win or lose, these local candidates never hear from these national supporters again. It’s such a sharp contrast to what they are used to with their local supporters, who are people they will get emails and phone calls from, who they will see at events or house parties, who will be there for them time and time again.

What changes have you seen in how these national funders are approaching school reform and what advice would you give them on how they might improve their approach?

National funders continue to play an important role in school reform, but it is a lot more behind the scenes than before, with more local groups out in front.

I think that some national funders are beginning to recognize that there needs to be more of a partnership with these local groups if they are going to overcome the blind spots that have hurt their own giving. That will require a greater level of humility from national funders about their own ability to influence local changes from a centralized national office. They will need to step away from a leading role and get used to playing a supporting role. They will need to accept that they have to work with and through the local leaders who are in the community meetings, who do have the local relationships and who are committed to sticking with these changes over the long-run.