“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)
By Erik W. Robelen and Michele McNeil | Ed Week | Vol. 29, Issue 31
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.
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. (newsletter article follows) 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.)
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.
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.”
From Checker's Desk: STILL TROUBLING BED PARTNERS
by Chester E. Finn, Jr. | The Thomas B. Fordham Institute | http://bit.ly/bPbaDG
Not long ago, I laid hold of this space to voice my concern that private foundations are getting entirely too palsy-walsy with Uncle Sam—and that he’s doing his ardent utmost to draw them into an intimate embrace.
Turns out I failed to appreciate the depth of this mutual attraction—though it’s hard to be sure how much of it is true love and how much a matter of mutual “leverage.” Either way, recent days have brought both fresh evidence of foundations banding together in part to do the government’s bidding in K-12 education reform and a troubling report from the recent Council on Foundation conclave in Denver.
The hard news is that a dozen major foundations have committed some $506 million this year to a joint venture intended to foster educational innovation, of which about one-fourth will be spent to “match” federal funding from the i3 “innovation” program. That venture, the government part of which is paid from economic-stimulus money, is meant to gin up fresh ideas to improve K-12 education and bankroll the replication of successful “innovations” already underway. Grantees must come up with a 20 percent match from private sources and America’s education-reform-minded foundations have been besieged by would-be claimants on the Education Department’s unusual largesse—hardly surprising, considering that applications are due next week!
To simplify such match-making, the multi-foundation initiative includes a novel—one might fairly say innovative—“online registry,” a sort of shared website where (in the words of Education Week reporter Michele McNeil) “applicants can upload their own grant proposal information and foundations can go shopping for reform ideas and partners that they want to fund.”
There is obvious appeal in one-stop shopping from the standpoint of would-be innovators, particularly small and inexperienced grant-seekers. But there is also a risk that group-think will substitute for the judgment of individual foundations (as in “well, three other foundations have already rejected this project so we need not waste time evaluati ng it ourselves”). Priorities may gradually merge and “innovati ons” could turn out to be bland, innocuous, and free from sharp edges. Which eventually weakens one of the great strengths of private philanthropy, namely that Gates isn’t Walton isn’t Casey isn’t Hewlett isn’t Ford isn’t Carnegie, etc., and their differing interests and values are pillars of true diversity and innovativeness in education (and other fields).
Of equal concern is whether a dozen of America’s most important education-minded foundations should tie up 130 million of their dollars in projects and programs chosen by government selectors, in effect subsidizing a government program with money that might otherwise support ventures that government cannot or would not touch. If the government wants more dollars than Congress appropriated, maybe it should go back for a supplemental—or change its spending priorities or raise taxes or borrow some more.
Though a great many details remain hazy to outside observers, it does seem that most of the other $376 million is intended by the foundations to underwrite education innovations that Arne Duncan does not fund. Yet if they are spotted via the new registry, they are almost sure to be the sort of project that conforms to i3 priorities, such as school turnarounds. Not necessarily a bad thing, but very possibly a corral outside which there are more daring innovations that could never qualify for government funding.
Yet the foundations may not care, for many of them seem more and more willing to let the Obama administration set their priorities, not least because they yearn—philosophically, culturally, perhaps politically, too—to help this administration succeed. The administration reciprocates, of course, as it is exceptionally keen to enlist these selfsame foundations in advancing its policies, programs, and reputation. There’s an affinity here that transcends anything I’ve observed in earlier years—and of course it is heightened by the number of people with foundation (and, generally, nonprofit) backgrounds who occupy key policy roles in the Education Department and other agencies.
Consider this report from the recent Council on Foundations soiree by the Manhattan Institute’s Anthony Paletta:
This year’s...conference...offered a revealing glimpse into the nexus of an administration eager to obtain the support of the non-profit world, and a community of increasingly politicized foundations who see bountiful opportunities for legislative achievements emanating from the current White House.
A tone of mutual congratulation pervaded the conference, first exemplified by remarks from Valerie Jarrett...manager of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which oversees public-private liaison efforts...
If you thought that philanthropy’s mission was simply to donate to areas in need, then you haven’t been paying attention....Concurrent with exhortations to spend philanthropic wealth in the most politically minded ways possible, the conference featured numerous speakers deeply concerned about the malignant influence of other people’s money on politics...
[E]xecutives from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, both single-donor billion-dollar funds that direct vast amounts of resources to political causes, argued for greater levels of political engagement in philanthropy.
Complicating this subject is the fact that philanthropists say (and surely believe) that what they’re doing is “leveraging” their own money with government dollars, policy clout, and regulatory oomph. They see this as an enormous bargain, a way to produce more action than their own budgets could pay for. They are thrilled by what they view as “policy alignment” between their goals and the administration’s. What they may not appreciate is that in this process—and in the name of “public-private partnerships,” a term I have come to mistrust—they are, in effect, subsidizing government and lengthening its reach beyond even the President’s and Secretary Duncan’s considerable intentions.