MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Charitable groups increasingly seek to influence education policy

A new report by a nonprofit called Grantmakers for Education has found that philanthropic concerns are increasingly seeking to influence education policy. The amount spent nationwide may still comprise just one cent of each dollar spent on education, but those pennies are directed where they can help set the agenda for how the much, much larger pool of federal and state funding will be spent.

In a very good overview, Education Week quoted Christine T. Tebben, the executive director of the group that put out the report, Grantmakers for Education: “The message we have communicated to our members is: If you’re serious about improving educational outcomes for students in this country, you have to think very carefully about the role of policy to do that,” she said. “Policy is really an important part of the toolkit.”

In 2010, 70 percent of the 164 charitable organizations surveyed for the report made grants to influence public policy or build public will for policy changes, up from 60 percent in 2009. The grants most often pay for research, policy analysis and advocacy, the report found.

Among other things, the article takes a look at the influence wielded by the philanthropists behind the “Billionaire Boys’ Club” — the Bill & Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad  and Walton Family  foundations — noting, for example, that Gates provided grants to nearly half of all states to prepare applications for the competitive federal Race to the Top grant program. Race to the Top, of course, sought to propel reform by dangling a financial carrot before cash-strapped states.

Minnesota got one of those $250,000 grants, which it used to underwrite half the cost of hiring the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to prepare the state’s application. The fact that the state didn’t even make the list of RTTT finalists most likely had more to do with the clear lack of political unity on the reforms called for by the program than McKinsey’s drafting: Nine of the 12 states that ultimately got the federal dollars won them with Gates-funded applications.

Indeed, the report was released at the same time as news of another Gates grant that will fund a collaborative teacher-training effort between several charter school organizations, Minneapolis Public Schools, the Minneapolis Foundation and former Mayor Don Fraser.

Another trend identified in the report: Charitable giving that attempts to influence education and the policy climate on the local level. This might be big news elsewhere, but Minnesota’s nonprofit sector has had a strong presence in education for quite some time. The Minneapolis Foundation supports numerous local efforts to erase the achievement gap; the Bush Foundation is spearheading a major initiative to overhaul the way teachers are trained and, of course, AchieveMpls works to create both practical and policy support for Minneapolis Public Schools.

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