This article was orginally pubished in the September issue of the Oregon Business magazine.
What happens when philanthropy takes a seat at the education reform table? Thirteen years ago, Oregon philanthropy decided to ﬁnd out.
For more than a decade now, an extraordinary conversation has been taking place in Oregon’s schools and halls of government.
It’s a conversation about how policy and proven practices might be enlisted to transform a stuck K-12 education system, and about how to empower educators and students in every community from Pendleton to Portland to Corvallis to Coos Bay, whether rural or urban, wealthy or underserved.
It’s a conversation about what becomes possible when we stop fighting over funding and start focusing on the metrics. And since 2004, Foundations for a Better Oregon’s Chalk-board Project has been at its center, testing out a simple theory of change. Philanthropy — with its neutrality, considerable capital and power to convene — is capable of achieving that which has sometimes felt unachievable: lasting education change, supported by numbers and driven by policy, for all Oregonians.
“Philanthropies are strong messengers of change,” notes Chalkboard president Sue Hildick. “How can we not sit at the policy tables and try to be part of the education solutions?”
When five of Oregon’s largest foundations — The Collins Foundation, Ford Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, the Oregon Community Foundation and the Wendt Family Foundation (soon joined by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation) — teamed up 13 years ago to create Foundations for a Better Oregon, this collaboratively funded public charity had one goal: to identify and collectively tackle a complex social issue facing Oregonians.
Transformation of Oregon’s K-12 education system quickly captured their attention: Reform discussions were ongoing, contentious and not terribly productive.
“There was a feeling that the public policy conversation was broken, and we needed to help set the policy table differently,” recalls Hildick.
Resetting that table meant forming Chalkboard Project, an independent, nonpartisan initiative to elevate student achievement, eradicate achievement inequalities and make Oregon’s K-12 public schools among the nation’s best.
The driving belief: An independent, philanthropy-driven organization functioning outside Oregon’s K-12 system could elevate the conversation by lifting up proven ideas, testing out those ideas right in Oregon’s classrooms, and elevating dialogue among educators and policy makers.
From the get-go, this was no ordinary discussion, recalls Betty Komp, a former educator and retired Oregon legislator who participated in those foundational conversations.
The collaborative emphasis enabled stake-holders from all sides of the discussion, both seasoned and novice, to come together in the service of tackling some longstanding issues and inefficiencies through deep policy change, she says: “That work we did those first two years literally drove the agenda for the next 10. That was something that was not happening within the state agencies. Prior to that, it was more fragmented. Schools were out there doing their own thing and trying the best they could, but it wasn’t something that was coordinated with a statewide vision.”
Over time, Chalkboard has succeeded in speaking over the noise of funding and ideological battles, says Senator (and former educator) Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), who was also present for those early discussions: “They have chosen to stay data-driven, and that’s an important thing. It’s an important asset to have, and it reminds other people to be data driven. It reminds them to look at what’s really happening; not just what feels good.”
Impartiality is the distinguishing factor for Chalkboard, agrees Meyer Memorial Trust CEO and FBO founding member Doug Stamm, and that has helped build the trust and credibility required to push through large-scale change: “We have no vested interest except in the outcomes of our kids and the achievements of our kids. Our overarching outcome is only focused on: What will be the impact on student achievement? You start there.”
Today Chalkboard directly reaches 82% of Oregon’s 600,000 public school students in 78 districts from Salem to Vernonia through its initiatives. These include the CLASS (Creative Leadership Achieves Student Success) Project, which strengthens partnerships among teachers, unions and administrators; TeachOregon, which increases clinical practice opportunities for new teachers; and Leading for Learning, which offers coaching and support to emerging school leaders.
These efforts have helped Chalkboard gather the proof points that unlock doors to state funding: Oregon has invested $64,000,000 in supporting the educator workforce since 2007, thanks in large part to Chalkboard’s advocacy and initiatives, and that’s a great return on investment, notes Stamm. “That work can benefit the kids in one particular district, but to have that meaningful impact, to reach our goal of lifting up Oregon’s achievement into the top quartile, means the whole state has to change.”
Broad change always requires an under-girding of policy support, agrees Ford Family Foundation president Anne Kubisch, and philanthropy, being so nimble and fast-moving, can help with that. “[Foundations] have the ability to represent in a politically neutral, non-ideological way, issues, analysis and recommendations that are grounded in research and practice and community … rather than politics or ideology,” says Kubisch.
Over its lifetime, Chalkboard has helped usher in some big policy wins for Oregon’s education system, including HB 2574, a mentoring bill for new educators passed soon after Chalkboard’s founding, and SB 290, which established game-changing statewide teacher performance evaluations.
During the most recent legislative session, Chalkboard helped secure the passage of Oregon Senate Bill 182, an intergovernmental agreement that unites the public and private sectors in support of the educator workforce.
SB 182’s passage means big things for Oregon’s schools today and its workforce tomorrow, says James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation executive director Martha Rich-ards. Richards served as the philanthropic voice on the Council on Educator Advance-ment, whose recommendations created the framework for SB 182, and she sees a real eco-nomic incentive in supporting such policies. “We need an educated population in order to be ready for whatever is coming. And right now, every child that we lose in sixth grade, ninth grade, or as a junior in high school, these are people who may not be able to participate in what’s coming.”
Chalkboard was initially piloted as an 18-month experiment, but the levers of an entrenched education system wouldn’t be budged in a single legislative session, or even in a single decade.
Today FBO is additionally funded by 20 affiliate members, and Chalkboard Project remains its sole focus. There’s much left to be done, notes Hildick: Oregon education remains squarely in the middle of the pack on many metrics, and the state’s high school graduation rates have remained stubbornly low.
The state has not agreed on a vision for education transformation yet, she says. In the meantime, Chalkboard Project is focused on pushing through more smart policy while using its reputation as a trusted, impartial change agent to keep on convening those remarkable, transformative conversations.
“We get to help set the table more often, now, and that’s not because we showed up as the six biggest foundations in Oregon,” says Hildick. “It’s because we showed up after having done deep work with educators and bringing the value of their voices into the process.”
- Quality Educators