Philanthropy Is Helping Improve Education in Florida

Last week I was invited to speak to the Florida Board of Education about how philanthropy and government in Florida can be effective partners to improve our state’s education outcomes. This marked the first time that Florida Philanthropic Network has ever presented to the Board of Education. The presentation was part of FPN’s ongoing efforts to improve public-private engagement in education and in other areas that our members support.

Florida Philanthropic Network President & CEO David Biemesderfer speaks to the Florida Board of Education on October 9, 2012.

FPN has a strong interest in education because it is a top funding issue for many of our members. A study by the Foundation Center revealed that 61% of Florida foundations support education – more than any other issue. That’s why FPN operates an increasingly active Education Funders Affinity Group (EAG) comprised of our members who fund education issues, organizations and needs; the group includes family foundations, independent foundations, corporate givers and community foundations across Florida. Through the EAG, FPN seeks to find ways to build bridges between government, business and philanthropy so that we can work together more effectively to improve education in Florida.

One of the key points that I stressed in my remarks to the Board of Education was that philanthropy’s value as a partner with government is not about the money. For one thing, government dollars far exceed philanthropic dollars, both in Florida and across the nation. Florida’s 2012-2013 budget of about $69 billion, for example, is 50 times greater than the $1.4 billion in annual giving by Florida’s foundations. Florida foundations spend between $150 million and $200 million each year to support a wide range of education organizations and causes across the spectrum – from early learning through post-secondary education – which is a tiny fraction of what the state spends on education. Philanthropy can never fill the gaps in state dollars due to budget cuts or rejections of federal dollars. The numbers just don’t add up.

But as I explained to Board of Education members, private foundation spending can often be more nimble and flexible than government spending, and that’s where the value of a strong public-private partnership can benefit Florida. Although foundations cannot fill in the holes in the state budget, they can use their more limited dollars to fund strategic pilot projects or test out new educational methods or strategies, often with a relatively quick turnaround time. If the tests prove successful, local or state agencies can step in to implement the learnings on a broader scale.

In the Board meeting I offered several examples of how this philanthropic role has worked well in Florida, including a story about the Eckerd Family Foundation in Tampa. The story was described a few months ago in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

High school graduation rates for foster care youths in Florida in 2004 were abysmal. Eckerd Family Foundation, a private family foundation investing in Florida, North Carolina, and Delaware that helps foster care youth reach adulthood successfully, started asking what could be done. The foundation decided to tackle the problem in a unique way: by funding a nonprofit organization called Connected by 25 (Cby25) to conduct focus groups and surveys with foster youth beneficiaries — its “customers” — and involve them in designing a solution…

To open the first focus group, Diane Zambito, executive director of Cby25, wrote on a white board: “Sixty percent of you drop out.” She then waited to hear the reaction of the 25 young people — all foster youth — in the room.

The responses were immediate: “No, we don’t drop out, they don’t let us back in school after we have to change our placement.” “We get so far behind that it is hopeless to stay in school.”

One student said that her change in foster care placement meant she had to change schools. She got good grades, and was a leader socially and in sports, but the new high school had a different scheduling system, and to stay on track for graduation, she would have to attend night and summer classes.

Other stories followed. The depth of disruption in their lives every time they changed foster placements and schools was alarming. “Nobody even talked to me about my placement or school move,” said one student. On average, the kids said that they changed schools three times during their teen years.

When Diane asked them what would help them graduate from high school, they said that they would need someone in the school system, a guidance counselor, to help them overcome the issues getting in the way of finishing high school.

Cby25 and the foundation successfully pitched the idea to the Hillsborough school system in 2005. A high school guidance counselor for all Hillsborough County high school students in foster care was hired and the position was paid for by the foundation. Within 2 years, high school graduation rates among young people in foster care increased by more than 50 percent. Students who performed at or above grade level increased from 33 percent to 63 percent, and promotion rates rose from 75 percent to 87 percent. Hillsborough County school system has since then decided to fund the guidance counselor position, as well as a middle-school guidance counselor on special assignment to kids in foster care.

As this story shows, philanthropy is at its best when it invests with great precision, finding the sweet spot, testing it, pushing it, proving it. Then, the larger community forces can determine whether, and how, to expand and grow what philanthropy has planted.

I also outlined to the Board of Education the many ways in which philanthropy can be a valued partner beyond the money. Foundations can be effective neutral conveners to bring diverse parties to the table to tackle difficult education issues; can be a powerful, nonpartisan voice to explain education challenges and reforms; and can bring knowledge and research about what works, and doesn’t work, to improve education outcomes.

Philanthropy is not the “silver bullet” for Florida’s education challenges. It can, however, bring important assets to the table, helping policymakers find points of leverage that can significantly improve public education. Florida Philanthropic Network and our education funding members welcome the opportunity to explore partnerships that have the potential to enhance the quality of public education across the Sunshine State.

- David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Florida Philanthropic Network.

One thought on “Philanthropy Is Helping Improve Education in Florida

  1. Important policy conversation on what
    Philanthropy offers and its limits. The
    opportunity to test ideas as partners makes sense.

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