At a time when government dollars get tightly clenched and closely watched, education foundations play an increasing role in providing teachers opportunities to try new methods in the classroom. Mary Chance, president of the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, says philanthropic dollars are best spent promoting experiments in boosting the field rather than simply filling budget shortfalls. Foundation funding should act as a garnish instead of a lifesaver, or as Chance said during a keynote speech at the recent SB2 panel, Good Education: Learning for a Lifetime: “Better the pimento on the olive than the finger in the dike.”

SRQ: How does the Gulf Coast area compare as far as the accomplishments of education-focused philanthropy compared to the rest of Florida? Chance: The challenge for a lot of my folks around the state is the school system may see them as funding unmet needs. What I see from this community is that everyone wants to stay in their lane, but also understands they are on the same highway. K-12 is messy in particular, and there is just so much work to be done, but I see a very focused effort on trying to figure out how the sum can equal more than the parts. You’ve got forums like this to engage people more broadly. You can come up with questions and theories of change, try them and stick with them long enough to know if there was an impact, and bring the ideas right to leadership. Sarasota is the size and type of community where there’s enough bandwidth to get traction and do some deep work, but not so huge that the silos are so profound you can’t break through them. My experience in the urban districts with 200,000 or 300,000 students has been that it’s a little hard to get your arms around it.

How, ideally, should philanthropy interact with public schools? The beautiful thing with philanthropy and with private funding in education is that you can be a catalyst. You need to be covered in order to access research and development for promising, but possibly controversial, tactics and try things that, because of rules and regulations on systems with government money, [school districts] don’t have the freedom to try. A beautiful world is when that R&D—that cover, that catalyst—results in something other communities can learn from and be scaled, replicated or adapted and shared out to other communities. In a perfect world, it then results in investments with government money. That’s where I see the leveraging. There is an endless bucket of needs; now schools are expected to do social services like backpack programs. The needs are always going to be there and you have to figure out who will fill these basic needs, but what I see this community focusing on is: how can we be that catalyst and provide the seed money to try something new? I’ve seen it happen; the Eckerd Family Foundation, for example, cared deeply about initiatives for kids in foster care. A big problem was that kids in foster care moved from school to school. Sometimes they get lost and have to learn a whole new culture in these different schools. Eckerd asked: what would happen if we funded a guidance counselor who was only responsible for kids in foster care regardless of what school they were in? In Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas, they funded that position for several years. It was a deep investment. Those kids’ graduation rates demonstrably improved. [The foundation] took that data to school board meetings and was able to demonstrate the difference. Then philanthropy can step out and say: what’s the next thing we can affect change on? I see the potential for that in this community.

Foundations in this region benefit from a having so many generous donors. How do you make sure students don’t have to grow up around a high concentration of wealth in order to get a good education? There is a school district in North Florida, Jefferson County, that has 700 students in the entire county. There has been major “white flight” away from the public schools. When you measure the schools, they are consistently low-performing. That’s a real challenge, and perhaps in that instance you need a little freedom to just make this a charter district and try something that’s a completely different model. We are talking about enough students to fill one school in the entire county. Maybe it’s time to turn that around and upside down—take a poverty area like that and see what happens with a blend of virtual and in-person learning, and bring in these platforms and give these kids the tools they need. [Cable magnate] Ted Turner happens to own a lot of land in that community; let’s say he makes it a strong broadband community and those kids get a mixture of virtual learning and resources, access to things that are not in their community like AP Physics, if that’s what they want, and they get some personal learning and supervision so they are not so totally isolated. If you approach it that way, they can become incubators, even though they have a whole different set of problems. For a lot of these communities that are poor or are smaller, they have different assets.

Education funding always seems to be under fire. To what degree do foundations have to provide stopgap funding? The pressure happens more at the local level, where the budget realities become painfully real compared to the state level. Term limits, the revolving door and the fact everyone starts campaigning immediately, don’t help. [Term limits] hurt the collegiality of people working together, and I think you lose historical knowledge and connections. It’s one of those things that people voted for because it sounds good but when you look at the reality of how you implement it, it doesn’t work as well.