Putting Money Close to the Ground: How a Key Funding Group Has Fought the Education Wars


With heavy hitters like Broad, Gates, and Walton dominating the field of education philanthropy, it’s easy to forget that there exists an altogether different approach to giving in education—one that emphasizes grassroots advocacy and local organizing.

That alternative approach is embodied by an education funding collaborative, Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER), that is directed by NEO, formerly called Public Interest Projects.

If you don't know about NEO, you should. This intermediary has awarded over $151 million in grants to social change organizations since 2003, working in partnership with a wide array of partners on a range of issues. Collaboration is central to how NEO operates, with an eye toward linking up grantmakers and nonprofits in new ways to maximize impact. Also key to this outfit is surfacing new ideas and strategies for achieving change, and making sure that "co-created knowledge" gets "put in action." 

It's a savvy crew there at NEO, which is important when it comes to education. NEO has been an underdog leading the pushback to an era of top-down reforms promoted by leading education funders. 

Melinda Fine, NEO’s director of education and also director of CPER, is at the helm of this work. Fine came to this position with an unusual blend of credentials: On the one hand, she's a published education expert with a doctorate from Harvard, who also did a stint on New York City's Community Education Council. On the other, she worked as a nuclear freeze activist during the 1980s.  

CPER was founded in 2007 and will formally end next month, but Fine is still bullish about the impact that education organizing can have on the sector.

CPER is a big operation: It drew in 76 local and national funders and raised nearly $34 million, which in turn was pumped into around 140 community groups and advocacy allies in national coalitions. CPER focused its efforts in six target states, and a report on CPER, co-authored by Fine, says that all this work "helped to achieve over 90 school-, district-, and state-level policy reforms that strengthen educational equity and opportunity."

In a conversation, Fine pointed to organizing victories in hot spots like Philadelphia, Chicago and many other places, where CPER-supported organizations have successfully pushed back against what’s been styled as a corporate reform agenda that includes high-stakes standardized testing, school closures and attacks on teacher unions. 

One fascinating thing about CPER is that it has rejected the idea that good solutions come in top-down fashion from funders who know best, even at the level of its own grantmaking methodology. The collaborative has been driven by the premise that those closest to the ground should "lead reforms in their best interest." So while the funders behind CPER embraced the broad principles of equity and excellence, the specific agendas in target states were set by local groups, including those channeling the voices of parents and students.

Contrast that with how donors like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Ackman have operated in Newark. 

Another linchpin of CPER's strategy is broad investment in education organizing, with the goal of building the capacity of such groups over the long term. That entailed efforts to strengthen leadership and bolster coalition work, among other things. As the report on CPER stated: "Every organizing campaign is about both winning a policy change and building organizational and community power."

Here again, we can't help flagging how different that approach is to the program-by-program grantmaking we see many funders engaged in—an approach that drives nonprofits crazy, in part because it puts funders in the driver's seat as they dole out all those little grants with lots of accompanying directives. 

Evaluating CPER's overall impact isn't easy, despite the long list of policy wins that it lists in its final report. Many of these wins relate to governance and policy—e.g., strengthening community or family involvement in education decisions—and it's hard to say how those changes translate in terms of learning and student achievement.

Of course, philanthropic efforts are always hard to evaluate, especially when this many players and variables are in play. What really stands out about CPER is that it's been a testament to how the so-called "new philanthropists" have not actually had a free run in the education sector. They've been challenged, again and again, and CPER has been behind a great many of these challenges.

There are also broader lessons in how NEO/CPER has engaged the education wars. This has not been about cutting a check and waiting for an annual report. It's been about collaborative philanthropy by providing funding and holistic support to organizations in an effort to shepherd their progress. Again, that’s refreshing in the era of “fund and flee” philanthropy in education, where passing fads seem all the rage and leave educators feeling reform fatigue.