Schools could see budget relief with new grants.

Schools could see budget relief with new grants.

A coalition of wealthy foundations is offering up to half a billion dollars to match federal grants meant to encourage education reform, taking the pressure off schools scrambling to find the matching dollars they need to get the money.

A dozen foundations plan to announce this week that they are investing $506 million, a portion of which is intended to match grants from the $650 million Investing in Innovation (I3) program from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The foundations also set up an internet portal for applying for matching funds from all the foundations in one step, streamlining the task of seeking money from multiple sources. School districts, schools, and other nonprofits have until May 12 to apply for the money, which will be paid out by the end of September.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was ecstatic about the foundations’ interest in the innovation program and called the partnership unprecedented.

“This is how we should be working together. This is how sectors should collaborate,” Duncan said. “If this goes well, think of the possibilities going forward.”

The unusual group effort by a dozen education-focused foundations reflects their enthusiasm for the fact that the Obama administration is pushing states and school districts to embrace changes the foundations have long championed. Some of the foundation money will go to innovative proposals that do not get federal dollars.

“Every foundation dreams of having one of its programs scaled up by the federal government” and expanded across the nation, said Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, a national authority on philanthropy since 1956.

The foundation money and the federal program are both aimed at three aspects of education reform: innovation in the classroom, ideas for turning around low-performing schools, and research to study ideas that can be expanded across the nation.

The foundations already have done a lot of research and development of innovative ideas in education, so it makes sense for them to take the lead in helping schools get the grants, said Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and chair of the Council on Foundations.

“Between and among these 12 foundations, we have deep expertise … about what works and what doesn’t,” Smith said.

Through their jointly created portal, the foundations will be able post comments, questions, and requests for more information directly on the online applications for everyone to see. They will be able to search for projects that meet their goals, see who is giving money to which project, and avoid giving more than meets the stated goals.

Duncan’s goal–and the goal of the foundations–is to spread the programs that work as far and wide as possible.

Most of more than $1.1 billion in government and foundation dollars will go to projects with a successful record, although both Duncan and the foundation leaders hope to also invest in some smaller, more speculative ideas.

They also expect the internet portal will bring to their attention some projects they might not have heard of otherwise. For example, their collaboration already has led to the discovery that few of their grants were supporting education reform in rural America.

“A billion dollars isn’t what it used to be,” Ralph Smith said, adding that he expects a lot more good ideas to be proposed through the portal than the foundations will be able to afford with their initial investment. “I think that’s a pretty good problem to have. It will really prompt us all to work harder and invest more.”

The group of foundations includes the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Carnegie Corporation of New York; Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; Ford Foundation; John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Lumina Foundation; Robertson Foundation; The Wallace Foundation; Walton Family Foundation; William & Flora Hewlett Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Links:

Foundation Innovation Project Registry

U.S. Department of Education

I3 program