Public-School Foundation Effort Surpasses Expectations
The organization that spearheaded the development of some 50 local school foundations nationwide has "surpassed'' its founders' expectations, according to an evaluation of the five-year project.
Known as the Public Education Fund, the independent grantmaking agency based in Pittsburgh closed its doors Dec. 31.
It has been succeeded by a scaled-down "Public Education Fund Network,'' which will continue to nurture former grantees of the agency, provide school foundations with technical assistance, and share information about them.
The local foundations are private, nonprofit agencies located outside the public-school bureaucracy and independent of existing interest groups. Their primary purpose is to build new coalitions in support of public education and to serve as conduits for the flow of private funds into the schools.
Established in 1983, the PEF responded to thousands of requests for technical assistance and helped launch 50 foundations, most of which are in urban areas.
Although the report says it is too soon to tell whether the foundations will be able to make a "sustained difference'' in the quality of urban schooling, it concludes that they have generated renewed interest in and support for big-city school systems.
The evaluation was conducted by a team of researchers led by Paul Nachtigal, a senior program associate at the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
"Without exception,'' the report says, the local education funds have drawn new participants into public education and obtained new resources for schools.
It also notes that the boards of the local foundations often serve
as training grounds in education policy for corporate executives, who
subsequently become more involved in such issues at the regional,
state, and national levels.
In cities where education foundations have been in place the longest, they are also finding opportunities to influence schools "in a more substantive way,'' according to the report. In some cases, it notes, they have served as "sounding boards'' for local superintendents and a "stabilizing force'' during times of administrative change.
Close the Gap
When the Public Education Fund began its efforts, the idea of creating local foundations to help raise money and support for the public schools was relatively unknown except in a few cities, such as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Washington.
Officials at the Ford Foundation helped launch the organization, in part, because of the widening gap they saw developing between schools and their communities, particularly in urban areas.
"There was a movement starting,'' said Edward Meade, chief program officer of Ford's education and culture program, "and we thought we would give it more life, expedite the process of development, and, to some degree, steer it in a particular direction, which was toward free-standing, community-based organizations that would be able to make decisions about the schools but not in the schools.''
From the outset, participants agreed that the existence of the P.E.F. would be limited to five years. Ford provided the fund with approximately $6 million during that period and charged it with establishing 40 to 50 local foundations.
Other foundations--including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Company Foundation, the Exxon Education Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundations--also contributed to that effort.
Roughly half of the local foundations launched by the PEF are in cities with populations of at least 250,000. Most include a sizable population of poor, minority, and disadvantaged youngsters.
According to a financial statement completed after the report was released, the education fund awarded $3.8 million in grants to local foundations over the five-year period. The local foundations were expected to raise $2 in matching funds for every $1 provided by the PEF Ultimately, they exceeded that goal, according to the PEF, raising about $6 for each $1 awarded--for a total of about $23 million in new revenues.
The bulk of those funds came from foundations and the business community, and the remaining amount from a long list of sources, including other nonprofit organizations, individuals, school districts, and investments.
That success is particularly noteworthy, the evaluation states, given the severe fiscal constraints and overburdened infrastructures that characterize most PEF cities.
In addition, the report notes, local school foundations have had a "critical symbolic value'' for teachers.
The "mini-grants'' that many public-education foundations award to teachers to pursue independent research or classroom projects are prized "as prestigious recognition from a valued institution outside the school system,'' the report says.
"These are funds that do not intend to change or reform the schools in a large sense,'' said Mr. Meade, "but rather to improve schools where it counts--at the level of the school and of the classroom.''
The report cautions, however, that finding "unrestricted, flexible resources'' for local school foundations is becoming more difficult.
"In many instances,'' it adds, "these were precisely the kinds of dollars provided by the Public Education Fund.''
Although local school foundations vary widely, the evaluation found that their success generally depends on the capacity, the will, and the readiness of individual communities to support such efforts.
The Los Angeles Educational Partnership, for example, is located in a city rich in private-sector resources, while other local funds have a much more limited financial base.
In addition, the report notes, the capacity of school systems to take advantage of local funds varies substantially. School systems marked by disarray, frequent changes in administration, teacher strikes, and highly politicized school boards, it notes, may not be able to make as great a use of such third-party organizations as can others.
The average local education fund spends up to one-fourth of its time on public information and on "networking'' in support of public education, according to the report.
Local funds publish newsletters, hold forums for parents and other citizens, make presentations to local groups, serve as clearinghouses for the receipt of private-sector resources, and provide technical assistance to schools interested in working more closely with their community.
To improve the image of their local schools, they have produced "hundreds'' of radio spots, television ads, and articles in newspapers.
In addition, many local foundations have served as brokers for school-business-community partnerships, and as conduits for the projects of larger, national foundations.
But the bulk of their expenditures support small, high-visiblity grants, averaging $662, to teachers and other school personnel.
Such mini-grant programs, the report notes, are "unique in the history of school improvement.'' Interviews with teachers and foundation directors suggest that these grants have improved teacher morale. And, the evaluation asserts, "business people report that they see it as a way of building incentives into a system that has no way to reward excellence or extra effort.''
The PEF has also completed two new publications, "The Local Education Fund: A Handbook'' and "A Resource Guide,'' designed to help communities start school foundations.
They are available free of charge from the Public Education Fund
Network, Gerri Kay, Executive Director, 600 Grant St., Suite 4444,
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15219; (412) 391-3235. The network is affiliated with
the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in
Vol. 7, Issue 30, Page 4