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Education Philanthropy Has Spiraled Since Risk Report

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While educators may debate what effect the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk has had on American schools, one area where its role in jump-starting the school-reform movement is highly visible is education philanthropy.

In the decade since the release of the report, foundations have poured larger sums into efforts to improve elementary and secondary education and the status of school-age children.

Foundation contributions to child-related causes made up 12.5 percent of all foundation grant dollars in 1991--the most recent year for which data are available--up from 10.1 percent in 1983, according to the Foundation Center, which tracks national philanthropic-giving trends.

Contributions specifically earmarked for elementary and secondary education made up 5 percent of all philanthropic dollars in 1991, up from 4 percent in 1982.

Meanwhile, membership in the Precollegiate Group--a subgroup of the Council on Foundations that focuses on K-12 education issues-- has increased from 35 program officers in 1980 to 350 this year. Another, newer subgroup that addresses broader social and health issues--Grantmakers for Children, Youth, and Families--has seen its membership grow from about 80 in 1986 to 350 today.

Before the National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation at Risk, most foundation education giving went to higher education, and gifts for K-12 education were limited primarily to private schools, typically the alma mater of a philanthropy's founder, according to Mary Leonard, the director of the Council on Foundations's precollegiate program.

But as the nation turned its attention to the report's charge that a "rising tide of mediocrity'' was eroding American public schools, so, too, did the philanthropy world.

"I think most of us didn't realize how far things had developed, and how drastic the changes were demographically,'' said Sophie Sa, the executive director of the Panasonic Foundation.

"As we got more and more into it, we have realized the magnitude of the issues,'' she added. "This is not something you can do overnight ... it really needs a lot of hands-on work.''

Corporate Aid Surges

In particular, corporate contributions to K-12 education surged in the 1980's, fueled by tremendous growth in corporate philanthropy's assets and increased interest in education issues among business leaders.

Initially, such interest evolved out of corporate concerns about the quality of the future workforce, said Leslie Graitcer, the associate director of the BellSouth Foundation in Atlanta.

But at BellSouth, she said, this interest later became rooted in "the broader humanitarian argument about who will be the citizens in our region and how they will contribute to the region.''

Today, the percentage of corporate education dollars designated for precollegiate education has tripled, up from 5 percent in 1983 to 15 percent currently, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

"I think businesses are much more knowledgeable about education change and what that involves,'' said Diana Rigden, the director of precollege programs at the council, which advises corporations on both K-12 and higher-education giving.

Supporting 'the Whole Child'

Today, both corporate and non-corporate foundations have developed a deeper understanding of the needs of children and how to improve schools, program officers say.

As a result, many foundations have adopted broader definitions of what comprises an education grant.

"We may give a grant to family or parent education and call that an education grant, because we look at the child holistically,'' said Pat K. Edwards, the education program officer at the C.S. Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., since 1977.

Interest in supporting large-scale and expensive efforts to coordinate the delivery of education, health, and social services to children has also prompted collaborative efforts among foundations.

"There's no one foundation that has enough money to take on the whole area of redoing standardized tests, for example,'' noted Ms. Edwards, who recently became a program officer in leadership development at Mott.

Furthermore, foundations are "not just co-funding, we're co-planning and coordinating our programs,'' observed Peter Gerber, the education program officer at the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

Foundations are also tending more often to play the role of convener, Ms. Leonard said, bringing together "people ... who ordinarily wouldn't have very much to do with each other,'' such as the local chamber of commerce and the teachers' union.

The Road Ahead

Still ahead, however, remain many challenges, foundation officers acknowledge.

One key area of concern is how to expand on the success of demonstration projects, Mr. Gerber said.

"I think more and more people are ... concerned about scale,'' he said.
Another hot topic among education program officers is evaluating the long-term effects of their grants.

"I think we spend a lot of time getting into a grant relationship with an agency,'' Ms. Edwards at Mott observed, "and we spend very little time getting out of it what we should get out of it.''

Just as schools are becoming increasingly concerned with student "outcomes,'' so, too, grantmakers are focusing on the results of their investments in schools, said Ms. Rigden of the Council for Aid to Education.

Yet, she added, some of the progress made by corporate foundations in the recent past is being eroded by the departure of experienced program officers as a result of downsizing or restructuring, and, in other cases, by increases in officers' workloads.

"At the very time when the complexity of the problem seems to be almost overwhelming,'' she observed, "the ability of corporations to put much attention on it seems to be diminishing.''

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