Best of 2019: Big donations generate high hopes, but don’t always add up to school success
Note: This story was originally published on April 26, 2019.
The huge gift to Connecticut schools this month from Ray and Barbara Dalio, which with matching grants would bring $300 million to public education, has raised high hopes in a state trying to lift achievement in struggling schools, but such generosity has often failed to meet expectations elsewhere in the U.S.
To be sure, the Dalio’s previous philanthropic efforts in public education in Connecticut, led by Barbara Dalio, have won high praise from districts that have been on the receiving end of those efforts. School leaders point to increases in both the number of students on track to graduate and the number applying to college as evidence of the effectiveness of Dalio-funded programs.
But, as education experts point out, the potential for disappointment when implementing a massive grant program is high.
Most agree that the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg invested in the Newark schools, with a matching additional $100 million grant, generally flopped with very little money ever reaching the classrooms, much of it frittered away by expensive consultants.
Likewise, Bill Gates’ investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in small high schools also failed to meet expectations, as did the millions more he plowed into a multi-year program to improve teaching in several states.
“Most of these efforts to spend a lot of money to change systems, I think, wind up disappointing,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Experts say there are many reasons why giant philanthropic efforts in education derail, but it’s often because donors come in with their own ideas instead of listening to the teachers and administrators in the schools they are trying to improve. Another reason is that donors don’t engage the community closely enough to get buy-in.
“You don’t want to be hostage to even the well-meaning generosity of a philanthropists,” said Casey Cobb, an education policy professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education. “You don’t want to be held hostage to their vision or their way of getting there.”
“You don’t want to be hostage to even the well-meaning generosity of a philanthropists. You don’t want to be held hostage to their vision or their way of getting there.”
Casey Cobb, professor
UConn’s Neag School of Education
So far, Cobb said, it appears that the Dalios are reaching out to the community to engage them as they did in East Hartford when they announced the grant earlier this month.
“I know part of that was ceremonial, but they went to a public school and they talked to teachers and students and said, ‘You’re going to be part of the solution,'” Cobb said. “That’s incredibly important and astute of them to listen to hear what educators have to say about how this money could be used.”
Another complaint about mega-philanthropists is that they sometimes lose interest in a project and move on to another without leaving any structure — financial or otherwise — in place to continue what they started.
In those cases, the initial ideas are often good but then fade away and are replaced by another program, said Ken Zeichner, an emeritus education professor at the University of Washington.
“I think some kids will benefit from that money, but you are not at all dealing with the underlying problems that should be dealt with so that kids in the future will not be dependent on that money and will get a high quality education no matter what their zip code,” Zeichner said.
Hess also points out the difficulty of making systemic change in multi-billion dollar educational systems even when the dollars donated are “huge to any normal human being… they are not really as big when you’re trying to actually change school systems.”
For instance, he said, the $200 million generated by the Zuckerberg gift was substantial, but the city of Newark was already spending more than $1 billion a year on schools. That $200 million spread out over a few years, he said, amounted to about an extra 5 percent a year, or a nickel on the dollar.
“If you go into a school system that is highly challenged, do you think an extra five cents on the dollar is going to be enough to transform things?” Hess asked. “Most of us would probably say, geez, probably not.”
In Connecticut, too, the Dalio’s donation — as generous as it is — begins to look tiny when compared to how much the state is spending on education. The plan is for the $300 million — $100 million from the Dalio family, $100 million from the state, and $100 million from private donors — to be spread out over five years, or $60 million a year.
“If they are able to make a difference for ninth graders at risk of dropping out and are able to to do much better by those kids, that can help improve the culture at those schools. It can give hope to families.”
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies
American Enterprise Institute.
However, when you add up local, state and federal funding, Connecticut spent $11.9 billion on public education during Fiscal Year 2017-18. That means the Dalio family’s gift will amount to a .5 percent increase in funding in each of the five years.
Experts say the success of the donation may depend partly on how concentrated its use will be.
“Nobody knows how to fix schools,” Hess said. “But we do know how to do better by children facing challenges… If they are able to make a difference for ninth graders at risk of dropping out and are able to to do much better by those kids, that can help improve the culture at those schools. It can give hope to families.”
The Dalio effort is quite clear about its aim: a press statement says the partnership between Dalio and the state will help Connecticut’s “under-resourced communities, with a specific focus on communities where there is both a high poverty rate and a high concentration of youth (14-24) who are showing signs of disengagement or disconnection from high schools.”
But at this point, no one can say exactly how the $300 million will be deployed in Connecticut, if indeed the state comes through with its share of the funding and private donors come up with theirs.
On Friday afternoon, the governor’s office released details about the independent non-profit that will be formed to lead the new public-private partnership: it will be led by an executive director and governed by a board of directors made up of teachers, and mutually agreed upon representation from legislative and executive branches and Dalio Philanthropies. A statement from the governor’s office said the goal is to fill these positions this summer, adding that the non-profit will “manage the funds in a transparent and accountable manner.”
Barbara Dalio said in an email that she and her husband, who reportedly have a net worth of about $18.4 billion, are aware of the risks entailed with making large gifts to public education. Ray Dalio heads the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, which is headquartered in Westport.
“This is the time for knowledgeable people to be bringing to the table the problems, challenges, data, and lessons learned from similar efforts around the nation,” Dalio said. “From nearly 10 years of listening to teachers, parents, students, and administrators, the one thing that is clear is that public education is a complicated, diverse system and that to contribute well we need to listen to those in need about how to help them. We also know that not everyone will get exactly what they want so that there will be critics.”
She said that for those reasons “succeeding will take many people of good will coming together with advice, support, and compromise to get this right.”
Dalio said this is why the venture has been “launched with an aspirational vision and clarity around our goals while leaving many of the details open to be shaped and finalized with input from a wide array of stakeholders including the community, public school educators, non-profit leaders, public officials, and young people themselves. This will ensure the partnership is inclusive and impactful and that the beneficiaries are the students of Connecticut.”
Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for the the governor, said that Dalio Philanthropies has “a proven track record of incredible work with public schools on programs … that are successful because of the priority placed on community input and involvement.”
“We are well aware some private donations in other states have not met expectations. We studied them to gain a deep understanding of why these well-intentioned efforts did not succeed,” La Luz said in an emailed statement. “Governor Lamont is adamant about having direct input and involvement from public school teachers and community wrap around service providers. Broadly speaking, this partnership will be community and teacher-led initiatives, selected for their potential to advance community-centered economic revitalization, and provide greater opportunity in under-resourced areas throughout Connecticut.”
Investing in the success of kids
Focusing on ninth graders in Connecticut and on struggling high school students has been a large part of what Barbara Dalio has been doing in the past few years, along with helping disengaged youths reconnect with school and other opportunities.
In the past four years alone, Dalio has invested more than $50 million in the state’s public school districts, non-profit organizations and communities.
During that time, she has won a reputation for being collaborative, and for asking teachers and administrators what they need and then attempting to address those needs. Those who have worked with her say she’s not the kind of donor who comes in and tells them what to do — a frequent complaint about other major education philanthropists.
“Barbara has visited our districts, held round tables with students, heard from our staff,” said Mark Benigni, superintendent in Meriden. “She doesn’t just invest in public education. Her heart is in this work. She cares about what’s happening in this district. She wants success as much as we do.”
Meriden is one of the four districts that are part of the Connecticut RISE Network, which Dalio co-founded as an independent non-profit. It also operates in East Hartford, New Haven and Hartford.
The initiatives funded through RISE include summer programs for incoming ninth graders to help them make the transition to high school; counselors who work closely with ninth graders who need support to keep them on track; SAT Prep and college visits; teachers’ innovative proposals; as well as extensive professional development for teachers and administrators at the University of Chicago and and other education centers.
As part of the program, a “data dashboard” was developed that allows counselors to see in a flash how a student did on his or her most recent tests, what their attendance rate is, and if there are any behavioral problems.
“I feel very supported by the folks at Dalio and the RISE foundation. Barbara herself comes to every meeting and listens to what we have to say. She helps us to find solutions.”
Anne Marie Mancini, assistant superintendent
East Hartford Public Schools
Christine Fenn, one of the transitional counselors at Maloney High School in Meriden, said the tool provides her with “real time data so I’m able to intervene, as opposed to waiting too late.”
With assistance through RISE, Fenn, who works with students who need extra support, is able to have a much smaller caseload — about 60 students compared to a couple hundred for most counselors — so that she can meet more frequently with her students, and get to know their families and teachers.
“We are able to spend a lot more time with kids, making sure they get support with any social-emotional needs,” Fenn said. “They know they have an adult advocate in their corner.”
Benigni said the the results have been good, with more ninth graders on track to graduate: 76 percent were promoted to grade 10 at Maloney High School in 2014-15 before RISE, compared to 94 percent last year in the second year of the RISE program. Benigni also points to rising graduation rates and to growing numbers of students applying to college as evidence of the success of RISE.
In East Hartford, Anne Marie Mancini, assistant superintendent, has also seen increases in the numbers of ninth graders on track to graduate and an improving graduation rate, and an increase in the number of students completing federal financial aid forms, which she attributes to RISE.
In addition, she said the professional development offered through RISE has been “the best .. that I’ve been involved in,” Mancini said. “I feel very supported by the folks at Dalio and the RISE foundation. Barbara herself comes to every meeting and listens to what we have to say. She helps us to find solutions.”
In New Haven, Superintendent Carol D.Birks also expressed support for the program, saying the partnership is “helping us to create a supportive learning environment to bolster students’ affective developmental growth and social emotional well-being.”
Past mistakes should guide future decisions
There has been some pushback to the RISE program, however, which has also been implemented at the Hill Regional Career High School. A grassroots group known as the New Haven Public School Advocates has been particularly vocal.
In an op-ed first published in the New Haven Independent and later in CT Mirror, Sarah Miller and Fatima Rojas, parents and organizers of the group, criticized the “data dashboard,” saying that while it has some potential benefits it also “serves as a distraction from teaching and learning, undermines human connection and understanding, and raises significant data privacy concerns — all without demonstrating improvement in student learning.”
An 18-page report released by the advocates says that the partnership between New Haven Public Schools and RISE “potentially erects barriers to student learning; operates without inclusive governance structures; raises concerns about data privacy … and strengthens ties with special interests working to privatize public education.”
“This is not a sustainable model for our public education system to count on the benevolence of billionaires to fund its most basic resources and conditions — the things we know that all young children should have access to.”
Lauren Anderson, associate professor
In an interview, Miller said the Dalio money would be better spent on an endowment to provide needed core staff, such as guidance counselors or a librarian “who will be there forever. You can call it the Dalio person if you want.”
Lauren Anderson, an associate professor of education at Connecticut College who also volunteers with the New Haven Public School Advocates, sees a lot of drawbacks to huge philanthropic donations to education.
“This is not a sustainable model for our public education system to count on the benevolence of billionaires to fund its most basic resources and conditions — the things we know that all young children should have access to,” Anderson said. “There are things that are being cut right now in the state of Connecticut despite its exorbitant wealth in some places, and those are things like librarians, nurses, counselors, basic sorts of class size stuff.”
Anderson said she has concerns that the gift gives the Dalios “outsized influence in how the money is ultimately going to be spent” and also “potentially subordinates money from the state to that cause.”
In their opinion piece, Miller and Rojas said they don’t question the Dalios’ good intentions, but suggest that if they want what’s best for kids, “they could set a new bar for those at the high end of the wealth gap in Connecticut by annually paying their real proportional fair share– and do so publicly in order to encourage others to find their moral centers too.” Those tax funds could then be used to hire needed core school staff, as well as for paying for extras like the arts and languages, the advocates said.
“Given the poor track record of mega-philanthropy in education, from the Gates Foundation’s unsuccessful experiments to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million disruption in Newark,” the piece says, “we have every reason to take serious pause before this plan takes further shape.”
Hess said that the real strategic aim for those planning how to use the funds in Connecticut is to think about building programs or structures that will be “good and permanent and useful contributions” when the additional $60 million stops coming in each year.
He said the money should be used as “spring board as opposed to a crutch,” and that it will be important for donors and state officials to keep a sharp eye on how much is spent on consultants and the organization that runs the grant program.
“It’s easy to wind up spending a lot of money on staff with impressive consultants and all that goes with it,” he said.
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