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Funders collaborate to show impact of investing in organizers

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Revolution will not be funded. Or then again, maybe it will be.

A collaborative of national funders that recently awarded Philadelphia education organizing groups over $400,000 to strengthen grassroots reform efforts represents a significant new philanthropic investment in community-based public education activism.

The $6 million initiative, called Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER), also targets Chicago, Denver and New Jersey. It provides direct support to grassroots education groups and their allies, plus opportunities for all four localities to share ideas and strategies.

The local recipients of CPER funding include five organizing groups – Philadelphia ACORN, Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, and Good Schools Pennsylvania – as well as the Education Law Center, Research for Action, and Public School Notebook (which received $15,000).

Individual grant sizes are not eye-opening – the maximum in Philadelphia is about $60,000 per group – but the backing of a social justice strategy by mainstream funders is striking. Often, large foundations have shied away from support of organizing groups. The area has been the focus of funders specializing in progressive philanthropy, or grantmaking that downplays direct services and supports movements challenging underlying social inequities.

According to Julie Kohler, CPER’s spokesperson, the new funder collaborative doesn’t so much see its support as a vote for progressive social change as a vote for organizations that use strategies proven to work.

“CPER’s funders are investing in organizing for various reasons. Some may support organizing as an end as well as a means – a way of ensuring that education reform is democratic and equitable,” Kohler added.

“CPER helps broaden the public discourse on education and help make school reform a community conversation between educators, policymakers, and families – the consumers of education,” she said.

At the William Penn Foundation, the region’s leading funder of the initiative, staff see education organizing as having the potential to change policy and improve the educational experiences of disadvantaged students.

“By helping to build the capacity of grassroots groups, philanthropy can play an important role in strengthening our community’s ability to have a meaningful influence on education policy at both the state and local levels,” said Brent Thompson, director of communications at the William Penn Foundation.

“We hope that other foundations will also see the value of making investments in this area,” he added.

CPER’s national funders include grantmakers like the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, whose mission is to fund progressive community activism for education reform, as well as two of the nation’s largest funders – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The legitimacy of education organizing has benefited from a number of published studies in recent years. For instance, a 2005 report by Norman J. Glickman and Corianne P. Scally of Rutgers University documented positive benefits of education organizing in schools, including improved student achievement, and in their surrounding communities as well.

Local education activists and organizers see the initiative as a potential breakthrough. ”The grant reflects a growing recognition that student and parent organizing is essential to achieving and sustaining school reform,” said Lauren Jacobs, coordinator of the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform, a network that includes local organizing groups and allied organizations.

Local grant recipients will step up their respective efforts on equity issues and also rally around the local CPER’s two primary objectives, a more equitable school funding formula for Pennsylvania and improved high schools in Philadelphia.

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