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School & District Management

Local Funds Playing Larger Roles in Reform

By Kerry A. White — May 26, 1999 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 7 min read

Corrected: This story gave incorrect information about a program called Library Power. The program is underwritten by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.


The Boston Plan for Excellence started out in 1984 with a modest but important mission: to pitch in and help the struggling Boston schools with “mini-grants” for school projects and college scholarships for students.

Money talks, and as the nonprofit organization’s endowment grew over time, so too did its ambitions. The group’s leaders gradually began to exploit their financial clout and their role as a community arm strongly supported by many of the city’s civic and community leaders.

Increasingly, when district administrators and the school board met to consider large-scale reforms, the Boston Plan began asking for, and receiving, a seat at the table.

Today, backed by nearly $35 million of grantmaking muscle, the local education fund is an integral--but independent--part of education policymaking in Boston, a “critical friend” that provides a constructive bridge between business, community, and district leadership.

The relationship “has been really constructive,” Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said of the district’s experience with the Boston Plan for Excellence. “There’s a healthy pushing and prodding” between the two groups, he said.

And it is one of the success stories of the Public Education Network, a Washington-based organization of more than 40 local education funds, or LEFs, around the country, mostly in urban districts. Over 16 years, the local groups have sought to use their money and political clout to shape the school reform process and improve the education of children in city schools.

“They have an ear to the ground both in the community and in schools and are focused above all on improving the quality of public education for kids,” said Wendy D. Puriefoy, PEN’s president.

Need for Distance

Not all the groups are as influential, or as successful, in tackling the big picture. Some LEFs, with smaller endowments, pay for only small-scale classroom projects or work on raising community awareness through forums and sending out brochures and pamphlets.

Yet overall, the funds, which serve mostly low income urban and rural students, are praised in the regions where they operate as interested outsiders looking in on the sometimes Byzantine world of school district policymaking.

Since 1983, Ms. Puriefoy said, PEN’s member organizations have contributed some $500 million to local schools. The national organization has 44 local foundation members in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Collectively, the groups support and serve an estimated 5 million children, many of whom live in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.

Ms. Puriefoy says the local groups are structured to take on projects that rigid district bureaucracies and politically constrained school boards often can’t, or won’t. “I’ve begun to think of LEFs as community-development corporations,” she said.

But in promoting reform and the welfare of children in the schools, the foundations must be careful not to align themselves too closely with their districts’ administration or politics.

“We find the common ground,” said Mary Sarris, the executive director of the fund in Lynn, Mass. “But the challenge of the local education fund is that you support public education but not the system itself. You’re allies with the superintendent, but you don’t support all of his methods.”

Launched with grants from the Ford Foundation, PEN was one of many reform initiatives spawned by the ominous warnings sounded in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report on American schools.

Focus on Broad Change

The organization originally focused on establishing local agencies to support schools through small grants to teachers, technical assistance to schools, college scholarships, and other projects.

And though improving schools has always been the network’s overarching goal, Ms. Puriefoy said, big-picture, systemwide reform has become its primary mission only in recent years.

In pursuit of that goal, the local foundations involve themselves in a wide range of activities: lobbying for standards-based reform; professional development for teachers, administrators, and school board members; raising community awareness on such topics as school budgets and elections; linking schools and social services; dropout-prevention and career programs; and technology training.

Many of the local funds have heavy hitters from the corporate and civic worlds, as well as academics, parents, and community leaders, on their boards of directors. Most now have at least one full-time staff member.

The Boston Plan for Excellence began with an initial gift of $1.5 million to the district for scholarships and small grants to teachers.

But after a decade of distributing “innovation” grants to teachers and schools, the organization’s leaders concluded that few of the small projects outlived the grants or were having a direct effect on student achievement. So the LEF switched its focus in 1995 to what it calls 21st Century Schools. Under that plan, schools choose an instructional focus--most have chosen literacy--and receive grant money, extensive training, and other professional resources from the Boston Plan. The grants can total some $300,000 and last for four or five years.

Boston Model

The 21st Century Schools design coincided with the arrival of Mr. Payzant, a veteran schools chief and former assistant U.S. secretary of education who has since become Boston’s longest-serving superintendent in 25 years. With his collaboration, leaders of the Boston Plan for Excellence aligned their school reform model with the district’s reform goals.

Yet, however closely the Boston Plan and the school system have worked, the relationship between the district and the private foundation has not been seamless. Leaders on both sides agree that the friction is natural and something they work around.

“It’s not without tensions,” Mr. Payzant said. “You’ve got this external, independent group that shares the goals of the school system but may have a different idea about how to reach those goals. We meet regularly and try to sort out where the communication gaps are, where the issues we disagree about resources are.”

With about $200,000 for each school, the Boston Plan moved its program into 20 percent of the district’s 128 schools in 1996 and has produced some notable successes, mostly anecdotal, in terms of relations with parents, community involvement, and improved curricula. A study of academic progress in the schools is expected in the fall.

The plan has become a reform model for the entire district. With support and matching funds from the Annenberg Foundation, the 21st Century School model next school year will have been adopted by all of the district’s schools.

“It’s the collective actions of teachers that make a difference,” said Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence. “And we were lucky. There was an alignment of the stars” she added, meaning the appointment of Mr. Payzant and the support of the Boston school committee. “I don’t know another superintendent that would let us in on the district’s dirty laundry.”

A Safe Distance

Few LEFs have aligned themselves so closely with a particular district administration. Many of the smaller foundations, with more modest resources, work on more specific, targeted projects, at a distance from the district leadership.

In Lynn, just a few miles north of Boston, the Lynn Business/Education Foundation awards grants to schools for such projects as AIDS awareness, parent training, and classroom activities that support the district’s curriculum. The group also underwrites professional development through a Ford Foundation initiative called Library Power, helps high school students find professional opportunities and internships, and publishes a community guide to the budget.

The Lynn foundation has an annual working budget of about $130,000 and a staff of one.

Whether big or small, the challenge for the LEFs is to walk the line between supporting the district but not compromising the funds’ autonomy.

“Education funds have to be independent,” said Margaret Hiller, the executive director of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund in Bridgeport, Conn. “We have a healthy dialogue with our superintendent,” she said, referring to James A. Connelly, who has led the 22,000-student district since the group formed in 1983. But to be successful in gauging progress, the LEFs need to maintain an outsider’s perspective, Ms. Hiller said.

The Los Angeles Education Partnership, one of the largest LEFs, views as one of its primary roles the bolstering of public trust in a sprawling district of nearly 700,000 students whose leadership is often perceived as remote.

That makes the group’s position as an independent outsider all the more important, says Peggy Funkhouser, the organization’s executive director. “The community and schools trust us,” she said. “We are a friend of public schools, but a critical friend. Bashing is not our role, because we’re in it for the long haul.”

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 1999 edition of Education Week as Local Funds Playing Larger Roles in Reform


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