Special Report

Foundations Seek to Leverage Innovation Funding

By Michele McNeil — April 30, 2010 5 min read
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A dozen foundations that have been key players in efforts to improve schools are pledging $506 million this year to spur education innovation, including a joint effort to help districts, schools, and nonprofit groups secure matching funds for the federal Investing in Innovation grant competition.

The new, collaborative effort is not a pooled fund of grants; each foundation will retain control over its contribution, and decide how it will award its funding. Nor is the initiative announced by the U.S. Department of Education April 29 a commitment of additional funding from those foundations—the $506 million represents the total amount of money they had planned to spend this year on what they consider education innovation.

“This is about being smarter and leveraging all of the funds available. This gives us greater visibility and greater focus,” said Bibb Hubbard, a program officer at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the philanthropies. “This potentially could improve the way foundations collaborate.”

Another of the grantmakers, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, of Battle Creek, Mich., is spearheading a separate, $25 million fund drive to help provide matching funds specifically to rural school districts seeking to win a share of the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, funding, which is expected to draw thousands of applicants.

The 12 foundations, which aren’t disclosing their individual commitments, are: the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Annie E. Casey Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the Gates Foundation; the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation; the Kellogg Foundation; the Lumina Foundation for Education; the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; the Robertson Foundation; the Wallace Foundation; and the Walton Family Foundation.

(The Carnegie, Gates, Hewlett, Mott, and Wallace philanthropies currently provide grant funding to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week and edweek.org.)

Targeted Efforts

The $506 million will be directed into three areas: $233 million for innovation in the classroom, focused on teaching, data, and instruction; $178 million on schoolwide innovation, focused on turning around low-performing schools, extending learning time, and creating high-quality charter school options; and $95 million on innovation sustainability, or paying for research and evaluation of the new efforts.

An undetermined amount of the money will also be available for matching funds for the i3 grant recipients, but likely no more than $130 million overall. The rules for the U.S. Department of Education’s $650 million i3 program require districts to secure a 20 percent private-sector match, or a waiver, in order to win. That’s equal to $130 million from the private sector, far lower than what the 12 foundations have committed to spend on innovation efforts—leaving tens of millions left over for other priorities.

While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the foundations’ initiative as a “historic, collaborative effort,” the department also stressed that matching funds for i3 won’t just come from those 12 grantmakers, but also from other foundations, companies, private individuals, and universities.

The i3 grant competition, financed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, puts $650 million in economic-stimulus funding up for grabs for schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations that want to scale up innovative ideas for improving education. Three tiers of awards, ranging from $5 million to $50 million, will be offered, with the biggest awards going to the proposals that show the best records of success and the most potential for expansion. Applications are due May 11. (“Final Rules Unveiled for ‘i3' Innovation Fund,” March 17, 2010.)

The Kellogg Foundation, which focuses on improving schools in rural America, is setting up its separate funding steam to help provide matching funds to rural school districts because such districts may not have easy access to foundations and other private-sector partners. Toward its $25 million goal, Kellogg is kicking in $4 million, and the Walmart Foundation $5 million. Kellogg is also soliciting other donors.

For foundations, the ability to piggyback on a federal grant program—and get a big return on a 20 percent match— is a huge driver behind the effort.

“The philanthropic community is quite energized,” said Ali Webb, a program officer at the Kellogg Foundation. “When you can take a 20 percent grant and leverage 80 percent from the federal government, that’s a really good day in philanthropy.”

And Kellogg’s focus on rural districts is to ensure that they “would not get left out of the stampede,” she said.

One-Stop Shop

To help districts, schools, and nonprofit groups find private-sector partners for their i3 proposals, the 12 foundations are establishing an online registry where applicants can upload their own grant proposal information, and foundations can go shopping for reform ideas and partners that they want to fund. For districts that don’t win i3 grants, the online marketplace could still lead to new partnerships and grants between the foundations and schools and districts.

Some critics of Mr. Duncan have asked whether the philanthropic community—from which the secretary has drawn several key hires for the Education Department—is tied too closely to the department and the decisions it makes. Foundations themselves voiced concerns during the public-comment period for the i3 grant rules that they might become de facto gatekeepers for applicants. (“Changes Urged in Rules for Federal Innovation Aid,” Dec. 2, 2009.)

But Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, stressed that the foundations would have no role in selecting the i3 winners. What’s more, she said, applicants don’t have to secure their matching funds until after the department selects the winners, a change from the original rules proposed for the competition. That change, Ms. Abrevaya said, was “made to reduce the risk that foundations could influence the pool of applicants.”

Still, such a partnership between philanthropy and the federal government can have its drawbacks, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“On one hand, this may be much ado about nothing. On the other hand, I worry about the signal it sends,” he said.

And that signal, Mr. Hess said, is that reform ideas that don’t fit Secretary Duncan’s agenda will have a hard time finding resources.

“A huge share of money for school reform is being given in accordance with guidelines constructed by the Department of Education,” Mr. Hess said. “We’re basically putting all our chips in one basket.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Foundations Seek to Leverage Innovation Funding

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