jasonfranklinHow funders can be effective in supporting education policy change

By: Jason Franklin In: 2010 Annual Conference

26 Apr 2010

The Council on Foundations annual conference session on Sunday, “Federal Policy and Advocacy: Fixing NCLB and What Foundations Can Do About It,” focused on federal education policies and offered a host of insights into how education philanthropy is making investments that support effective policy change. For those who couldn’t join us, I offer a quick recap of the discussion and insights.

Barbara Chow of the Hewlett Foundation started off the conversation with five suggestions of how funders can be effective in policy change. While aimed at education leaders, these suggestions could apply to almost every philanthropic effort:

  • Provide risk capital by funding interventions and strategies that are bold but might fail and then sharing our successes AND our failures with others.
  • Help develop evidence by supporting impartial efforts to collect and analyze evidence to inform policy change.
  • Make tangible the effects of policy by providing opportunities for policy-makers to see and understand the realities in a classroom that relate to policies they are considering.
  • Fund advocacy by moving dollars to directly support independent leaders engaging in federal advocacy work, so it can be a core part of their work.
  • Support technical assistance. While the least glamorous, it is important to fund efforts that translate policy decisions into effective action.

This guidance sparked a host of reactions that I will apply to my education advocacy and funding efforts:

  • Ann Segal from Wellspring Advisors pointed out that while research overwhelmingly shows that early childhood social/emotional development is as important as cognitive skill development, this “soft side” work is still largely unfunded in federal education interventions.
  • Stephanie Stanford of the Gates Foundation pointed out the paradox of evaluation in the federal education policy. She said that if you innovate and don’t measure, you don’t know if you’ve been successful. But if you measure (for example, with test scores), you narrow incentives to innovate to tactics that will move the measure, and thus limit the possibilities for major innovative change. Sanford also offered a very interesting analogy. She said that when developing common standards, we face the iPod challenge to create a shared platform (the iPod or standards) that allow for innovative implementation (apps or experimental curricula).
  • John Jackson of the Schott Foundation made his point about resource insufficiency and equity vividly clear when he noted: “We have a goal to shoot towards the moon, but our education resources set us on trajectory to run into a two-story building.”

Jackson’s question should be a challenge for all funders and advocates of education reform. How can we effectively situate the question of equity at the heart of the ESEA authorization? If quality education is a civil right, as President Obama has said, what investments must we make to ensure that that civil right is met for all students and how can competition for resources (like Race to the Top) align with the universal expectations of a civil right?

Jason Franklin is a board member of the North Star Fund, deputy director of the 21st Century School Fund and lecturer on public administration at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service.

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