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Time for Private Foundations for Public Schools?

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San Francisco--The Ford Foundation sponsored a conference here last week on an unorthodox idea for raising money for public schools: creating local, nonprofit foundations with the single goal of supporting public education with funds from private sources.

Three years ago, there were only a few such foundations. Now, it is estimated, there are 100 of the independent, locally controlled bodies, most of them in California, where school systems suffered severe budget cuts after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

The meeting here, the first of its kind, suggests the concept is gaining momentum: nearly 400 educators, parents, and philanthropists--almost double the number expected--attended.

If the idea indeed catches on, it could become a focus of attention for educators nationwide. Because such foundations are supported by donations from parents, business groups, and other foundations, some educators say their growth may signal a renewed community commitment to public schools.

Concerned About Decisions

On the other hand, because the education foundations already in place are usually run by directors independent of school officials, some conference participants expressed concern that decisions on how public-school money is spent could be taken out of the hands of school officials.

Nonetheless, the current fiscal crisis faced by many schools has created considerable interest in the idea, among both educators and those outside of the schools.

"There is an urgency to tap whatever sources of funding are available," said Vern Brimley, assistant to the superintendent of the Provo, Utah, schools.

Advocates of school foundations say they are valuable for a number of reasons.

"We are a very strong, grassroots public-relations voice for the school district," contended Gladys S. Thacher, executive director of the San Francisco Education Fund, which has awarded $800,000 for 201 school projects in its first three years. "We are giving the general community some kind of voice in education."

Added Robert Evans, an elementary-school principal who recently started a foundation to support "enrichment" projects in the Cinnabar school system in Northern California: "Our foundation is getting people from outside the schools involved in setting school goals. Our base of support is growing."

Edward J. Meade Jr. of the Ford Foundation told conference participants that local foundations should spend their money supporting innovative classroom projects. "Foundation money is risk capital; it should be used for promoting excellence in the classroom," he said.

The Ford Foundation, Mr. Meade said, will contact other major national foundations and leading corporations in an effort to create a "national pool" of funds that would be used to launch additional public-school foundations.

The San Francisco Education Fund, the Allegheny Conference Education Fund in Pittsburgh, and the Cape Educational Fund in New Jersey's Cape May County are among the foundations that direct their money toward the classroom level by making direct grants to teachers for curriculum projects.

Ranging from $300 to $3,000, these types of grants have supported such efforts as the expansion of an after-school theater program and a project to combine visual arts and creative writing for gifted 5th graders in San Francisco and the establishment of a gardening course for inner-city biology students in Pittsburgh.

"These 'mini-grants' are worth their weight in gold as morale builders among teachers, who now see an opportunity for being rewarded for excellence," noted David Bergholz, executive director of the Allegheny Education Fund, a part of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a business-supported civic group."It gives those in the schools a feeling that the community cares about what they are doing."

Added Ms. Thacher of the San Francisco Education Fund: "It is important for the foundation to 'seed the particular,' to get visible results quickly. If you give money to the school system, who knows where it goes?"

In a keynote address, Francis Keppel, professor of education at Harvard University and former U.S. commissioner of education, warned that the foundations "cannot possibly replace tax dollars," and should not be used for that reason.

However, some foundations see their role as simply fund raisers on behalf of school systems. For example, the affluent Laguna Beach, Calif., community created SchoolPower in 1980 expressly to defray school deficits caused by the passage of Proposition 13. Between June 1981 and June 1982, the group raised $100,000, mostly from parents. The money is turned over to the Laguna Beach school board.

Who allocates the money raised by the local public-school foundations, and by what method, were two main questions discussed at the conference. Among the others:

What role should school officials play in the foundation? In San Francisco, for example, they play no part in deciding which teachers are given grants. Superintendent Robert F. Alioto told conference participants, however, that he was not troubled that "outsiders" were making such decisions.

Will states reduce their aid to school systems that have successful foundations? Will foundations merely become another "political entity?''

Since affluent school systems are more likely to have successful foundations, will a widespread movement to fund public education with private money damage efforts to make the quality of education more uniform among rich and poor communities?

"I'm concerned that the foundation movement may contribute to a privatization of public education," said Bruce Dollar, a development officer for the New York City school system. "We will have to resist the temptation of seeing public education as a consumer good. It has been seen as a public responsibility and not looked at with a market mentality."

Several workshop sessions focused on such practical questions as how to set up a foundation, how to gain tax-exempt status, and how to assign an appropriate role to a foundation's board of directors.

Said Ms. Thacher: "We are at the 'where do I go for help' stage. Not very many of us have much experience, so the questions are just as important as the answers."

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