Costly Proposals

March 01, 2002 3 min read
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An educator says that grant writing is divisive and takes a toll on teachers.

Teachers who sweat through grant applications are: (a) enriching their schools and showcasing innovations or (b) playing into the hands of would-be privatization advocates and distancing themselves from colleagues who don’t win funds?

That’s a question that Sara Freedman, a literacy coach at the Boston-based Center for Collaborative Education and an education professor, wants teachers to ask themselves the next time they sit down to write a funding proposal. Over the past six years, Freedman has conducted several studies of educators involved in the grant-seeking process, and she chooses answer (b), the more ominous interpretation of the phenomenon.

Twenty years ago, teachers had to make do with the resources they got—or didn’t get—from their schools, Freedman notes. But then charitable foundations started giving money to educators, and these days, she says, seeking private funding for classroom projects and professional development is “a way of life” for many teachers. That’s a troubling development, Freedman argues.

Why? Frequent grant-seeking undermines a democratic ideal in which all kids’ needs are met and shifts focus to “fulfilling the needs of the ‘deserving few,’ ” she writes in “Teachers as Grantseekers: The Privatization of the Urban Public School Teacher,” an article published by the Teachers College Record. Freedman also cautions that the activity takes time away from other duties while promoting competitiveness among colleagues.

Educators like Judy Sink, a 2nd grade teacher in Boone, North Carolina, recognize the negative aspects of grant writing that Freedman highlights. “Writing a grant can take up a whole weekend and more,” she says. And, she adds, it can set a teacher apart from colleagues if “you’re teaching outside the box of the standard textbook programs. Their feelings range from jealousy to wondering why we’re making their lives more difficult. When one teacher gets a grant, there is pressure on the others from parents.” Still, that doesn’t stop Sink from applying for money. “I do it because I like it,” she says. And she’s good at it: Sink recently won two grants totaling about $1,500 from a local business foundation, money she spent on plastic pipes, paper, and glue for her students to use in building a model of the space station.

Ellen Healy, an 11th grade English teacher in Manchester, New Hampshire, agrees that the benefits outweigh the hassles. “The time you put to grant writing is nothing compared with what you recoup,” she says. With guidance from her union local on preparing proposals, Healy has won three $5,000 grants from the National Education Association for teacher mentoring, advising parents, and student art and music exhibitions. “Grants are not a substitute for what the public gives but help us do a better job in the classroom,” she adds. “Joe Q. Taxpayer can only absorb so much, and grants are better than having teachers pay out of their pockets.”

Daniel Fallon, chair of the education division of Carnegie Corporation of New York, points out that grantmakers are not trying to create long-term alternative funding sources. “[They] think of philanthropy as an incubator, not an oxygen tent. Its proper role is to encourage good ideas that can’t find support elsewhere, to fuel the imagination and enhance the world of practice,” he says.

And Fallon disputes the charge that grant writing is by nature a divisive activity. “Teachers spend time together talking about teaching and learning, and they quickly recognize that some are better at math or literature,” he says. “Having the grant written by the best writer is not pitting one teacher against another.

A proposal is more likely to engender support if it speaks for many voices.” While Freedman understands that the money and recognition promised by private funders is hard to resist, she hopes her research will convince teachers and policymakers to at least consider the larger effects of grant writing. “The nature of grants is episodic, while urban schools require sustained support,” she says. “People have just accepted this notion that schools can’t depend on public funding, and that’s a dangerous road for democracy. We owe more to our children and the teachers who work so hard.”

—Charles S. Clark


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