Texas Funders Step Up to Defend Public Education

Students forced to share textbooks. Bus service canceled. Teachers taking on janitorial duties. After the Texas legislature cut the state’s education budget by $5.4 billion in 2011, almost every aspect of the public school system took a hit.

The same year, the board and staff of the KDK Harman Foundation, a local private foundation in Austin figured that restoring the cuts would require a massive effort.

Together with a handful of other foundation representatives, the KDK-Harman Foundation created the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium.

More than 80 foundations in the state have been mobilized to leverage their collective voice in pushing back against the drastic drop in public education spending.

The Texas legislatures meets every other year. Between legislative sessions, the Consortium supported research and advocacy to educate lawmakers about how the education cuts were hurting the state and its students.

During the 2013 session, the legislature responded to the objective data and the public outcry and restored a significant amount of the education budget.

Appealing to foundation self interest

In Texas, as in much of the nation, the education system depends on partnerships between schools and private organizations to deliver many essential services. Through their grantmaking, private Texas foundations play a huge role in supporting kids in the public school system and now the “public” side of the partnerships was in jeopardy.

In addition, after the budget cuts, funders were often left holding the bag. Many saw an increase in grant requests from organizations that used to be funded by public schools.

So it isn’t surprising that 40 foundation trustees and staff showed up for the Consortium’s first gathering in 2011 at the State Capitol.

While attracting funder interest for that first meeting in Austin may not have been a challenge, how has the Consortium continue to engage funders and use its limited resources to influence the debate on education? Two elements of the Consortium’s approach point to the reasons for its success.

Creating a “big tent” feel

The education field has become notoriously polarized politically. Policy debates tend to fall into one of two camps: strengthen public schools or provide alternatives to public schools.

But the education budget cuts in Texas sparked concern in the philanthropic sector that transcended ideology.  One of the crucial early decisions that the member foundations made when forming the Consortium was to avoid taking any strident policy positions. The Consortium was able to capitalize on the broad interest by framing its immediate goal in terms of restoring funding rather than engaging in the broader debate about public schools.

The Consortium has no political agenda. Instead, explains Jennifer Esterline, the project’s consultant, it is designed to provide philanthropists with the objective information necessary to make good use of both public and private dollars.

“We tried to be as objective and nonpartisan as we could because we thought we would start to lose people if we became really prescriptive,” says Esterline.

There are many examples of foundations that promote a specific policy agenda. But Esterline notes there are fewer examples where funders collaborate on an issue using a “big tent” approach where all are welcome and where decisions are made by consensus. Consequently, foundations with a range of different viewpoints on education policy have joined the Consortium.

Funding credible research

The Texas Legislature convenes every other year.  Much of the crucial work to inform and influence lawmakers gets done between sessions. In preparation for the 2013 legislative session, the Consortium worked to develop an advocacy strategy and navigate the legislative process.

To document how the steep drop in education funding was hurting the state and its students, the Consortium invested in research. It awarded a comparatively small grant –$100,000 – to a Houston-based nonprofit, Children at Risk. All 1,100 districts in Texas were surveyed about the tough decisions they faced following the cuts. (View the full report here: Doing More With Less: Looking Beyond Public Schools)

The research found that the cuts were affecting the very programs that have been proven to be effective in education. These include lower class size, extra tutoring support, and the number of hours available for pre-kindergarten.

The data pointed to one overwhelming conclusion: The cuts absolutely affected classrooms and students—especially those who foundations in Texas care most about: low-income students and limited-English learners (who happen to be the majority in Texas classrooms). 

The added value of the research lay in the fact that it was perceived as objective data. Legislators often view data from other sources as possessing an inherent bias. The Consortium’s research was careful to include not only the negative impacts of the cuts, but also the opportunities for cost-savings found by school districts. The research showed that throughout the state the funding cuts to schools were far greater than savings from new efficiencies.

After the report was released, the Consortium focused on “weaponizing the data”—getting the research into the hands of individuals and groups who would reinforce the message that the cuts were not good for Texas students.

Largest gathering of Texas philanthropy

In February 2013, the Consortium held its second event in Austin as part of its biennial “Advocacy Day.” Compared with 2011, when 30 or 40 people attended, this time more than 150 people participated from across the political spectrum, representing foundations from most of the state.

Consortium representatives began traveling around the state—from major cities to rural communities—to visit with Texas grantmakers. They talked both about the role of foundations in public education advocacy and the impact of the 2011 and 2013 legislative sessions on public education in Texas. In each community, a local foundation hosted the Consortium event which included a panel discussion with local education experts to discuss the local implications of statewide public education policies.

That effort led to 24 foundations joining the Consortium as paying members. All told, more than 80 foundations across the state have been involved in meetings specific to advocacy and grantmaking around advocacy.

Finally, in May of 2013, the legislature passed a budget that restored nearly $4 billion in funding to the public school system.

Does the Consortium take credit for the restoration of funding?

No. But project consultant Esterline believes the Consortium changed the conversation with its objective and intellectually honest research. The Consortium’s total investment in research and advocacy grants—less than $250,000—contributed to a budget debate that resulted in the restoration of billions of dollars.

“There’s no better return on investment of philanthropic dollars than research and strategic advocacy,” says Esterline.

Continuing to weigh in on education policy

While thrilled with the restoration of the education budget in, the Consortium is ramping up for the 2015 session. More organized, it is expanding its research-based advocacy strategy to other public education issues, including pre-kindergarten.

The Consortium is not a nonprofit organization. Nor is it designed to live in perpetuity. But Esterline believes now that foundation staff and trustees have learned how to navigate the corridors of power, they are likely to engage in policy debates in the future.

Esterline describes how she sees the role of philanthropy evolving in Texas as a result of the Consortium:

“Whether it’s the cuts to the state budget or a federal government shutdown, philanthropy has to step up and do more. We should be considered an important player and thought partner—but we also cannot fill all the holes. Today the focus is public education, but who knows what all of these foundations will be working on in 2020 now that they know how to get things done.”

Learn more about the Texas consortium of grantmakers: