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Calif. Foundations Urged To Step Up Role in Reform

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Monterey, Calif.

Reflecting a growing confidence in the potential leverage of private dollars on the public schools, education experts last week urged the California philanthropic community to act independently to influence state education policy.

"Legislation is a very weak lever when we're talking about reform,'' said Merrill Vargo of the California education department.

But foundations do not have to build consensus or legislative backing to implement change. "Foundations should get programs in place so the political end has something to build on,'' she said.

Initiated by the Pew Forum on Education Reform and sponsored in conjunction with Northern California Grantmakers and the Southern California Association for Philanthropy, the two-day conference here brought together more than 50 representatives from the California philanthropic community to reconsider their opportunities in the school-reform movement.

While encouraging the philanthropists to provide the underpinnings of policy reform, featured speakers warned against common misconceptions about change that often lead to scarce funds being wasted on inefficient initiatives.

Philanthropists must be hesitant to buy into the reform rhetoric without a clear educational philosophy and an understanding of the depth of change, said Maggie Szabo, the executive director of the California Center for School Restructuring.

Education advocates also "must agree on what's true and not true about what's going on in schools,'' said Davis Campbell, the executive director of the California School Boards Association.

No Silver Bullets

Questionable public-opinion polls and "education bashing'' in the media discourage a positive vision for the future and a realistic backdrop for change, Mr. Campbell said.

"Schools feel like they have to be perfect,'' Ms. Szabo added. "We're trying to push for schools to be honest,'' to show programs that work as well as those that do not, and to create "a real openness of [the reform] process.''

Mr. Campbell reminded participants that "there are no silver bullets,'' and that funders need to approach initiatives knowing that "academic excellence is a journey, not an end.''

Mindful of these caveats of reform, the speakers said, philanthropists should take a proactive role in seeking out potential grant recipients--and working with grant applicants throughout the process--to support informed, comprehensive, sustainable programs.

They suggested that the programs address such issues as the crisis of children and families, cultural diversity, curriculum instruction, professional standards, school finance, student accountability, school facilities, and governance.

And while the strength of private giving may be in small-scale projects that would not be the panacea for all educational ills, Mr. Campbell said they should find their niche in the larger picture.

"You can help by bringing down the rhetoric,'' and telling applicants that they do not have to oversell their product, he said.

Being unrealistic causes reformers to burn out, a participant added.

Ms. Vargo of the education department also stressed the importance of being positive.

"Right now, we have a vision of what's wrong driving us,'' she said. "When things start getting better, you lose energy.''

Organizers from the Pew Forum on Education Reform hope to generate interest in a national meeting with a similar agenda within the next year.

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