Public Allies: How a Small Family Foundation Got Behind Local School Teachers

photo: Anna Nahabed/shutterstock

photo: Anna Nahabed/shutterstock

In our coverage of K-12 philanthropy, we make a point of spotlighting large gifts to traditional public schools. Why? Because such support is a reminder that many foundations and major donors believe in these schools, as well as the unionized teachers who staff them, and aren't part of a highly visible community of top funders that has bankrolled an alternate universe of charters schools and nonprofit reform groups. In other words, the K-12 funding landscape is anything but monolithic. Funders here come in all shapes and sizes, holding a range of beliefs about improving student outcomes. 

The Clements Foundation is a case in point. The small foundation in Texas recently made a big donation to support teachers in a Dallas-Fort Worth public school district. The $10 million gift will establish the William P. Clements, Jr. Fund to support teachers in the Highland Park Independent School District.

"This gift is a perfect fit for the Clements Foundation because it combines my grandfather's respect for teachers with his love for the Highland Park schools and community," said Pauline Neuhoff, president of the Clements Foundation and granddaughter of William Clements. "We hope it inspires the community to join us in making our excellent school district even better."

The foundation reported assets of around $30 million in 2015. It's staffed mostly by William Clements' descendants. The $10 million gift is the largest in the foundation’s history.

In the past, at least judging by 2015 giving, the foundation gave mostly to education, but on a much smaller scale. It gave gifts ranging from $775,000 to $1 million to higher education. It gave one gift of $8,000 to a Christian K-8 school in Dallas that serves low-income kids. That means the gift to the Highland Park school district is not only the largest in the foundation’s history, it’s also its biggest investment in a public school district.

The foundation has a familial connection to the school district. The patriarch of the Clements family, the late William P. Clements Jr., graduated from the school district in 1934. He went on to start SEDCO, an offshore drilling company, and serve the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction from 1979 to 1983 and again from 1987 to 1991.

Many of Clements’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren also attended school in the district.

Highland Park school district serves about 7,000 students in seven schools across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For comparison, the neighboring Dallas Independent School District enrolls about 160,000 students. Highland Park is a relatively high-achieving district, placing in the top 5 percent of districts in the state in terms of college readiness.

The donation, while generous, highlights some fears of philanthropy’s critics. When foundations or individual donors give to schools to which they have personal ties, the fear is that it perpetuates inequality. Gifts are more likely to flow to schools and institutions that are already doing well, rather than districts or neighborhoods that are hurting for funding.

But let’s get back to the donation’s focus—the district’s teachers. The Clements Foundation is not alone in its support of a public school district. The gift is part of a growing empathy among funders for teachers’ work and challenges, which stands in contrast to years of ed reformers painting teachers and their unions as part of the problem.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gave out several smaller grants tackling the mental and emotional toll of teaching earlier this year. The head of CZI’s education work, Jim Shelton, said there would likely be more grants in support of educators in the future.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation, traditionally a backer of brain research, recently pivoted to include research that examines how teachers learn and change in its giving portfolio. The funder is also making sure its findings get to teachers, the people who need them the most.

Clements isn’t the only funder backing teacher support in Texas. Charles Butt, who owns the HEB grocery chain, made a $50 million gift to train teachers in the state last year as part of a larger commitment to improve traditional Texas public schools. Butt’s mother, Mary Holdsworth, was a teacher before she married his father. The gift went to scholarships for aspiring teachers and technical support for teacher training centers. The hope is that scholarships will allow teachers to enter the profession without crippling student debt.

The teaching profession has long been a battle zone in education debates. Some reformers and funders behind charter schools have seen unionized teachers as an obstacle to better student outcomes. Charter schools still have ardent backers among deep-pocketed, powerful funders like the Broad Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. However, newer funders on the education scene, like CZI, are showing a willingness to work with traditional public schools and less of a marked preference for charters, as well as displaying a greater empathy for teachers.

Even the Gates Foundation has changed its tune, moving in a more progressive direction. The foundation's new K-12 strategy will put resources behind locally driven networks working to improve schools. It also has a new initiative on poverty that implicitly admits that teachers and classroom factors weren’t the only things holding back student outcomes.

Meanwhile, the Clements Foundation's big gift underscores that plenty of local funders have strong faith in traditional public schools and their teachers.