Special Report

Push to Spur Innovation Raises Hopes—and Eyebrows

By Erik W. Robelen & Michele McNeil — May 07, 2010 8 min read
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The decision by a dozen major education grantmakers to team up on an initiative designed to dovetail with the federal Investing in Innovation grant competition is being seen by supporters as a chance to maximize the power of public and private resources to help transform K-12 education.

But it’s also renewing concerns that the Obama administration and the philanthropic sector are becoming too intertwined—in ways that could crowd out support for worthy reform ideas not favored by the federal government.

The initiative’s April 29 unveiling came as school districts, schools, and nonprofit organizations were gearing up for next week’s application deadline for a slice of the competitive $650 million federal fund, dubbed i3. More than 2,000 applications were expected.

The joint announcement from the U.S. Department of Education and private philanthropies indicated that the foundations were providing $506 million in 2010 to “leverage” the federal i3 fund, making more than $1 billion available to help expand promising innovations, including a portion the foundations will use to meet the 20 percent match required under the federal program.

Pledging for Innovation

Twelve foundations with long-standing interest in education issues say they are committing $506 million collectively this year to support innovative reform practices.

Carnegie Corporation of New York; Annie E. Casey Foundation; Ford Foundation; the Bill & Gates Foundation; William & Flora Hewlett Foundation; W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Lumina Foundation for Education; John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; Robertson Foundation; Wallace Foundation; Walton Family Foundation.

A portion of the $506 million will go toward matching grants for the school districts and nonprofits that win a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant. To win an i3 grant, applicants must secure a 20 percent private-sector match, or a waiver.

$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;
$95 million on innovation sustainability, or paying for research and evaluation of the new efforts.

NEW: The Kellogg Foundation 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 i3 grants. The 12 foundations also have created an online registry, www.foundationregistryi3.org, where districts and others can find philanthropic partners for their ideas.

Source: Education Week

The philanthropies have developed a shared online portal, called the Foundation Registry i3, to help connect the districts, schools, and nonprofit groups applying for the federal grant funds with the 12 foundations.

But there are important caveats.

The new collaborative is not a pooled fund of grants; each foundation retains control over its contribution and decides how it will award funding. Nor is it a commitment of additional money from the foundations—the $506 million represents the total they had planned to commit this year to what they consider education innovation.

In fact, some of the money has already been committed to particular grantees and projects, though the grantmakers have not indicated how much is in that category and how much they will reserve for i3 matching grants.

In any case, foundation officials say the initiative holds great promise.

“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.”

Some observers, however, say there may be reason for worry about the development, which comes in an environment in which they suggest philanthropic organizations and the Education Department have already been collaborating to an extent that may well be unprecedented.

“Recent days have brought fresh evidence ... of foundations’ banding together in part to do the government’s bidding in K-12 education reform,” Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes in his think tank’s weekly Education Gadfly newsletter for May 6. He expresses concern that the plan may crowd out private dollars that otherwise support ventures the government “cannot or would not touch.”

Mr. Finn, who was a senior education official in the Reagan administration, adds that many philanthropies “seem more and more willing to let the Obama administration set their priorities, not least because they yearn—philosophically, culturally, and perhaps politically—to help this administration succeed.”

But Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary at the Education Department, sees the situation differently.

“Some people say the foundations are driving the federal government’s agenda, and others are saying the federal government is driving the foundations’ agenda,” he said. “Neither is true. Where [our agendas] converge, we work together. Where they don’t, we don’t.”

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 W.K. 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.)

Targeted Efforts

The $506 million from the grantmakers will be directed into three areas of “innovation” focused on the classroom, school models, and sustainability. (See inset box.)

An undetermined amount will also be available for matching funds for the i3 grant recipients, but likely no more than $130 million overall. The rules for the Education Department’s i3 program require districts to secure a 20 percent private-sector match, or a waiver, in order to win the federal aid. That’s equal to $130 million from the private sector, far less than what the dozen foundations have committed to spend on innovation efforts.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the foundations’ initiative as a “historic, collaborative effort,” even as the department stressed that matching funds for i3 wouldn’t come just from those grantmakers.

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 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. (“Final ‘i3' Rules Keep Private Match, Evidence Hurdles,” March 17, 2010.)

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, in Battle Creek, Mich. “When you can take a 20 percent grant and leverage 80 percent from the federal government, that’s a really good day in philanthropy.”

The Kellogg Foundation, which focuses on improving schools in rural America, is also setting up a separate grant stream 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.

One-Stop Shop

The new Foundation Registry i3 launched as part of the foundation collaborative allows i3 grant applicants to upload their own grant-proposal information, and 12 philanthropies can use a search engine to go shopping for reform ideas and partners that they want to fund.

Michele Cahill, a vice president at the Carnegie Corporation, in New York City, said her foundation and others could decide to jointly match a particular i3 winner. Also, they might support proposals that don’t win the federal competition.

“We may find some that are powerful, and we can push the limits of risk further than the government can at this point,” Ms. Cahill said.

She also emphasized that the participating philanthropies aren’t losing any autonomy in the arrangement.

“I don’t think the foundation sector is doing the government’s bidding at all,” she said. “The foundation sector has a long history of independence, and that’s being preserved.”

Meanwhile, the i3 collaborative soon may be larger.

“There has been substantial interest by some other foundations to participate,” said Ms. Hubbard, from the Gates Foundation, and efforts are under way to develop a process through which additional grantmakers might join.

Some critics have asked since early in the Obama administration whether the philanthropic community—from which Secretary Duncan has drawn several key hires for the Education Department—is tied too closely to the department and the decisions it makes. For instance, the Gates Foundation has provided planning grants to states in the competition for federal Race to the Top grants. And foundations themselves voiced concerns during the public-comment period for the i3 grant rules that they might become de facto gatekeepers for applicants. (“Officials Urged to Retool Draft ‘i3' Rules,” Dec. 2, 2009.)

Sandra Abrevaya, a department spokeswoman, 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 that was meant “to reduce the risk that foundations could influence” the applicant pool.

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.

For one, he argues that some individuals or groups might be less willing to openly criticize federal actions or policies they feel are misguided if they perceive that major foundations are closely tied to the department and its agenda, for fear of alienating potential funders.

Robin J. Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, said she’s concerned that the foundation collaborative could lead to missing out on some important reform ideas.

“If people are trying to use all the same criteria and all the same ‘priors’ coming into this, there’s also some potential that they miss something that could really be innovative,” she said. “There is some value to a little bit of chaos when you’re making bets on things that might work.”

But Ms. Hubbard of the Gates Foundation sees the i3 fund as having created a unique opportunity.

“Foundations have been funding these kinds of innovations for a long time,” she said. “We felt that by taking advantage of the moment where there is this additional $650 million, that we could really accelerate impact.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Push to Spur Innovation Raises Hopes—and Eyebrows


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