Education Funding

Foundation Cash Boosts Education Advocacy Groups

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 14, 2012 4 min read
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Private foundations are playing a growing role in financing the nonprofit educational wings of several prominent K-12 advocacy groups, according to reviews of the foundations’ grant records and annual tax filings.

The efforts they underwrite run from the mundane—translating school district materials into Spanish, for instance—to activities deeply intertwined with policy, such as providing information to parents on topics like teacher evaluation and school choice.

Since 2005, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has donated or pledged some $5.2 million in grants to Stand for Children’s Leadership Center, including a two-year, $3.5 million grant in 2010 focused primarily on its teacher-quality work. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation provided $500,000 in startup costs to StudentsFirst and has funded Education Reform Now to the tune of $2 million since 2008.

And beginning in 2010, the Walton Family Foundation has supported all three of those advocacy organizations, including $2.5 million for Stand for Children, $1 million to StudentsFirst, and $2.4 million to Education Reform Now, which is associated with the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform.

(The Gates and Walton foundations also provide grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.)

‘Echo Chamber’

The confluence of foundation funding to those education advocacy groups has raised concerns among critics, who ask whether such donations amount to working in lockstep to influence policy. The groups have similar positions on some key policy issues, such as the expansion of charter schools and the development of teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores."Because of the amount of money that is available, each of these funded groups wields this ability to speak very, very loudly,” said Kevin G. Welner, a professor in the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “And because of the sheer number of aligned and interlocking groups, they form a strong network and echo chamber.”

For their part, foundation officials say they are trying to seize a critical moment of national interest in education policy.

“Stand for Children has deep reach that really lines up with some of the foundation’s other significant investments,” said Debbie Veney Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation. “What they do are things that we don’t do as an organization—galvanizing parents and educating parents about education issues, working with community groups.”

In addition, the groups “are bringing more horsepower to education reform advocacy, especially through outreach efforts—recruiting, acclimating, motivating more advocates,” said Ed Kirby, a senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation, in Bentonville, Ark. “Our view is that we’ve got great advocates doing strong work, but it is still a very undeveloped movement, relative to where it could be and should be.”

The Walton Family Foundation’s primary goal through its grantmaking is to promote policy attention to school choice, from charters to vouchers to tax credits, Mr. Kirby said. Both StudentsFirst and Education Reform Now support private school choice to a degree.

The Gates Foundation’s most recent grant to Stand for Children, meanwhile, focuses on developing tools to increase teacher effectiveness, a topic that parallels its own research work on that subject.

The grants also come with specific deliverables, though as Mr. Kirby pointed out, it’s often hard to trace an investment directly to specific policy outcomes.

The deliverables for Gates’ support are often tied to such aspects as technical assistance. For instance, Ms. Robinson said, Stand for Children has used its funding to inform parents about the Memphis, Tenn., district’s inclusion of student feedback as one of several measures in a new teacher-evaluation system.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation said that it expects its grantees to “strengthen public schools by developing and sharing new research, data, best practices, and perspectives with policymakers, practitioners, and parents so that they can make informed decisions.”

Stance on Lobbying

The question of lobbying is a trickier one. Though they cannot themselves lobby or earmark grants for that purpose, private foundations, including corporate and family foundations, can support charities that do a small amount of lobbying, said Melissa Mikesell, the director of the West Coast office of Alliance for Justice, an organization that provides help on the legal framework for nonprofit and foundation advocacy efforts.

Some private foundations choose to restrict any part of their grant funds from being used to lobby, even though such restrictions are not legally required, she said. For instance, they can specify that their funds support a specific project rather than general operating expenses.

The Gates Foundation is one such foundation that sets those stricter parameters on its grants. “It’s not like we’re pushing our ‘agenda’ on people,” Ms. Robinson said. “It’s a really important distinction.”

Regardless of the legal arrangements, however, grantees are generally aware of a particular philanthropy’s philosophical bent.

“Foundations increasingly have their own theory of change about how they see the world,” Ms. Mikesell said, “and it’s common for grantees to be attuned to that.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Foundations Aim Fresh Wave of Cash at Education Advocacy Organizations

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