Foundation Trains Laser-Beam Focus on Idaho Education
Idaho's education landscape has changed dramatically in the past six years, thanks to the beneficence of a philanthropy that has dedicated its resources to improving schooling in the state.
The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, one of only a few charities nationwide that focus solely on education in a single state, has subsidized initiatives that have helped the state write academic standards, provided districts with technology, and established a nationally recognized early- childhood program.
Last week, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, signed legislation ensuring that the foundation will be a key player in Idaho education for years to come.
Lawmakers agreed to support the foundation's proposal to build a statewide computerized database called the Idaho Student Information Management and Reporting System, or ISIMS.
Officials with the $623 million foundation, in Boise, promised to provide $35 million over five years to design and set up the system—as long as the state legislature did its part to make sure that it would be used effectively and be well maintained.
Wide majorities in both legislative chambers agreed to pony up $7 million annually to run the database and mandated that every school district use it.
The overwhelming support lawmakers expressed for the Albertson project—even while they grapple with a $160 million shortfall in Idaho's $2 billion budget for fiscal 2004—highlights just how important the foundation is to the state.
"We certainly are in a better position because of their interest and their funding and their concern," said state Sen. Gary Schroeder, the chairman of the Senate education committee and a sponsor of the bill.
The new student database, which was the brainchild of the state education department and will help Idaho meet some of the requirements of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, is "the next thing people need as they improve education in Idaho," argued Craig Olson, the executive director of the foundation.
As the head of the Albertson Foundation, he should know. Because the philanthropy subsidizes only education-related programs in Idaho, it has a laser-beam focus that gives foundation officials a close-up view of what is essential to educators in their state, observers say.
"Grantmakers who fund just in one county or state are better attuned to that community," said William Porter, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a Portland, Ore.-based membership organization.
The Idaho philanthropy's focus on one state's education system, though rare, is not unheard of. For example, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation gives only in Arkansas and counts education among its three interests.
The $143 million philanthropy, based in Little Rock, was established by the late Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, whose famous family has long been involved in international philanthropic endeavors.
The Albertson Foundation, which is not governed by the Albertson corporation, was established in 1966 with earnings that Joseph and Kathryn Albertson made from their grocery store chain, now one of the largest in the country.
Having never received college diplomas of their own, the couple decided to use some of their money to support education in the state where they lived and raised their family. Joseph Albertson died in 1993 at the age of 86, and Kathryn Albertson in 2002 at the age of 93.
For years, the foundation gave small grants to a variety of groups in the state.
That changed in 1997, when Kathryn Albertson gave the philanthropy $660 million worth of stock in Albertsons Inc.
Because of that gift, the foundation's annual grantmaking budget jumped from about $2.5 million to more than $35 million, greatly increasing the scope of the projects it could underwrite.
Since then, the foundation has given more than $200 million to pre-K-12 education in Idaho.
The database project is the latest in a long line of ventures the foundation has supported.
Through the new system, parents will be able to access their children's homework, grades, and discipline information online.
Teachers will be able to record student progress, and district and state administrators will be better able to generate reports and track students' progress.
Districts already have much of the technology in place as a result of a $43.4 million donation the Albertson Foundation made.
The foundation has also channeled millions of dollars to increase reading levels, provide professional development for educators, and craft state tests.
"They've played a large role in advancing educational changes that are now under way in Idaho schools," said Marilyn Howard, the state superintendent of public instruction.
Program directors at the foundation say that partnering with state leaders and bringing in researchers and experts from outside Idaho helps the philanthropy guard against having too much influence over education policy.
Moreover, most of the grant money goes directly to districts, which have the choice of participating in all but the ISIMS project. That setup limits the foundation's influence, said Kathy Phelan, the president of the Idaho Education Association.
"If [participation] weren't optional, then that might be a different story," she added.
Janet Goodliffe, the grant- proposal writer for Idaho's 4,000-student Madison district, has been involved with the foundation since 1997, when it gave the 11 schools in her district $280,000 to buy new books for their libraries. "We had librarians get tired of buying books, which never happens," she joked.
Beginning in 1998, the rural district received $374,000 over three years as part of the foundation's $1.75 million statewide Parents as Teachers initiative, a national program focusing on early childhood.
"It was the first time that the district turned its attention to early childhood," Ms. Goodliffe said. Though the money from the Albertson Foundation has run out, she said, the district is able to keep the program running through grants from the U.S. Department of Education and others.
That's how the Albertson Foundation likes it. "We like to use our money to fund pilot programs," said Mr. Olson, who heads the foundation. "If the pilot works well, we expect [grantees] to sustain the system."
But sustainability does not always come easy.
For example, in 1997, the foundation gave $1.64 million over four years to support Idaho teachers who wanted to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Since then, nearly 300 teachers have earned board certification.
Ms. Phelan credits that largess for the program's success. In fact, she believes that education in general has improved vastly throughout Idaho as a result of the foundation's financial support.
Still, grant money doesn't last forever. Now that the national- certification grant has run out, "a lot of people find that they can't afford it," Ms. Phelan said, referring to the cost of pursuing the national credential.
Sustainability is an age-old problem for philanthropies, according to Mr. Porter. But the Albertson Foundation solved it in an unusual way by seeking legislative approval for its database, he said. "I'm not aware of another foundation taking this step in education."
Alan Divack, the head librarian at the New York City-based Ford Foundation, likened the Albertson Foundation's insistence on government cooperation to a step Andrew Carnegie took when he built 1,681 libraries across the country between 1886 and 1917.
Carnegie made communities responsible for the upkeep of those libraries. Both the legendary philanthropist and the Albertson Foundation, Mr. Divack said, told their grantees: "We will build it if you sustain it." Carnegie, of course, provided bricks and mortar, he added, while Albertson is providing technology.
Sen. Schroeder, for one, is glad the legislature took the Albertson Foundation up on its offer. Otherwise, he feared, Idaho might have risked losing the financing to another, more appreciative state.
"If we snub them, they may decide to go somewhere else," he said. And that, he added, would be a "tremendous loss to our children."
Vol. 22, Issue 32, Pages 6-7Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as Foundation Trains Laser-Beam Focus on Idaho Education