Foundations Network Seeks To Spur Systemic Reform

By Jonathan Weisman — January 15, 1992 7 min read

The Public Education Fund Network this month will begin the process of upgrading its member funds’ programming from “feel good” philanthropy projects to more politically charged efforts aimed at systemic change.

Officials of the network will survey the 63 school foundations it has helped establish around the nation to determine what programs they currently are supporting, according to Wendy D. Puriefoy, the group’s president.

Then, over the course of the year, PEFNET plans to begin mobilizing consultants to help the funds move away from such narrowly framed programs as teacher mini-grants and one-day staff-development workshops to more sophisticated efforts that target the political roots of school- district complacency and academic underachievement.

During the network’s national conference in November, fund officials chose five target areas on which to focus programming: school finance, school and district governance, educational leadership, curriculum and testing, and school-community relations, Ms. Puriefoy said.

The group speculates that future programs could focus on efforts to institute training for school-board members, to create full-time teacher-training centers, and to raise the political consciousness of teachers.

The network, set up in 1983 by the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies, originally focused on persuading communities to establish their own local foundations to support public education. Deciding its purpose had been met, the group disbanded in 1988, but re-emerged this March, vowing to focus more on technical assistance for fund programming than simply on spreading the fund concept.

Pockets of Change

Observers say that the new, more policy-oriented thrust comes after years of frustration on the part of officials of some of the largest local funds over the failure of their efforts to win wider acceptance.

Mini-grants and staff seminars have created pockets of effective pedagogy, they note, but, by and large, such changes have failed to spread throughout the individual schools and districts.

In a meeting with Ms. Puriefoy in November, officials from the Los Angeles Educational Partnership of the nation’s largest and most sophisticated local education funds- expressed just such a frustration.

“Great things are happening in small spheres of a school, but they aren’t helping anyone else beyond them,” John McDonald, the director of communications for the Los Angeles fund, told Ms. Puriefoy. ‘I have to wonder, are we creating biospheres, a way for teachers to get around the schools, instead of changing them?’”

That complaint is common among the better funds that have successfully instituted teacher-centered programs, according to David Bergholtz, the executive director of the George Gund Foundation and a force in establishing the network.

“The more political of the funds took advantage of the good relations they established through minigrants and went to staff development, public-information support, and principal academies,” he said. “But then, they bumped into the limitations of working from the political margins.”

As a third party, the funds were supposed to broker change by working with the political power structure and the school-district employees, Mr. Bergholtz said.

Most, he noted, have been unwilling to push into areas where they have not been invited by both sides.

Moving From the Margins

A handful of funds have begun moving away from those political margins and could serve as models for the vast majority who have not, Ms. Puriefoy said.

The Massachusetts Department of Education, for example, is scheduled this month to release an education-reform blueprint that was funded by the Alliance for Public Education, a local education fund in Worcester, Mass. According to Paul Reville, the group’s executive director, the project would not have been undertaken if the fund had not rallied the state’s political muscle behind it.

The Fund For New York City Public Education two years ago convened eight working groups of educators and administrators to examine several concerns, including overcrowding, mathematics achievement, arts and culture education, and community service, said Beth Lief, the fund’s executive director.

Chancellor of Schools Joseph A. Fernandez has used recommendations from those groups to craft implementation plans that he vows to make a reality. Already the central board of education has upgraded the district’s math requirements at the fund’s request.

In addition, local school boards in the city have picked up staff-development programs that the fund launched in individual schools.

Another roadblock experienced by the local education funds has been the reluctance of the public sector to pick up their experimental programs, thus inhibiting the replication of successful programs in other cities, observers say.

Ultimately, many say, philanthropy is only useful if the philanthropists are able to persuade the public sector to begin funding the programming with tax dollars.

“The thing that is so frustrating is that we see so many great ideas, but why don’t these things spread?” Susan Zimmerman, the executive director of the Denver-based Public Education Coalition, asked.

“We have to find ways of moving on without maintaining the same programs year in and year out,” said Stoven Prigohzy, the director of the Chattanooga Public Education Foundation. “Some of us are just becoming providers.”

Leaving Teachers Behind?

No more than 10 local funds have been willing to take the political risks that are often necessary to align the school- district bureaucracy behind their agenda, Ms. Zimmerman said.

And resistance has come not only from gun-shy education-fund beards but also from school districts, which sometimes are more interested in the funds’ monies than in their opinions.

While philanthropic programming is welcome, it does not always lead to systemic projects, Mr. Prigohzy said. And when philanthropies move into the systemic area, he noted, “you aren’t always so welcome.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “it’s been very easy to become complacent as a fund because we know what we can do to do good work and to get the community to say, thank God you’re there.’ These mini-grant programs are like sucking one’s thumb. You have to feel some level of comfort to stop sucking one’s thumb.”

Many within both the philanthropic and the education communities believe that the funds should maintain their teacher-centered programs, and they fear that any efforts to move toward systemic reform will merely confound their mission.

“People worry that teachers have become very loyal to these programs and that they may lose that loyalty if they move on,” said Judith Renyi, the director of Collaboratives on Humanities and Arts Teaching, a Rockefeller Foundation program that has worked through the education funds.

“The other problem,” she added, “is that they don’t want to lose the subject expertises we’ve developed [through teacher training] in a swamp of political rhetoric.”

David G. Imig, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, echoed those concerns.

“The idea of scatter-gun approaches to in-service training [is] very needed and necessary,” he said. “They’ve created an enormous amount of excitement and energy. I think the [local education funds] are doing exactly what they should be doing.”

Regaining the Lead

Mr. Prigohzy acknowledged that leaving the teachers behind is a legitimate concern.

“But there’s a difference between a legitimate concern and a paralytic concern,” he said.

The education funds were leaders in innovative programming throughout much of the 1980’s, said P. Michael Timpane, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

A decade ago, he said, the teacher mini-grant helped break teaching out of an era where “teacher proof’ curricula were being designed that would render creativity unnecessary. The funds then led the movement to form broad coalitions of educators, business leaders, community activists, and parents behind the public schools.

Now, he said, they must take the next step.

“It would seem to me, if they are to remain vital organizations, it’s time for them to consider whether or not they can be successful in stimulating systemic reform,” he said.

For that to happen, many agree, the Public Education Fund Network will have to work actively with the funds rather than just to facilitate their creation.

“The role of PEFNET had been to see if people in the communities were concerned enough about the public schools to raise capital and dedicate it to improve the public-education system,” Ms. Puriefoy said. “As we move into this next phase, it’s become clear that some schools need more than improvement. They need restructuring.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1992 edition of Education Week as Foundations Network Seeks To Spur Systemic Reform