January 18, 2017; Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

In 2011, the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System was born out of a Louisiana group that was concerned with crafting a new strategic plan for the school system. As a link between the school and the business community, the board of the foundation, made up of representatives from local employers such as ExxonMobil and IBM, concluded that the district was lagging in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) compared with other school systems and states, which would eventually limit the workforce available for future jobs with these companies in the local community.

Once that gap was identified, the Foundation began to provide funds for STEM initiatives and programs not covered by state education funds. The linkage between the school and the business community also served as an avenue to engage professionals’ time and expertise. Employees from local companies mentor students, helping to establish a STEM identity mindset in young people who may have never considered a technology career.

Sounds great on its face, but the idea of a school-to-corporate-workforce pipeline is a little frightening. Should education be placed in that position?

School foundations are one of the fastest growing types of nonprofit organizations, with about a quarter of all school districts having either a district-level or school specific foundation. But does private support of schools through foundations, or through organizations like a parent-teacher organization, truly work toward the greater good? As previously covered in Nonprofit Quarterly, a hyper-local focus on a particular school or district can widen the achievement and opportunity gap. In other words, schools in affluent neighborhoods only get better while students in schools in less affluent neighborhoods miss out on even more opportunities.

Yet, according to one study, school foundation funding equates to approximately 0.3 percent of a school system’s budget. And, as they often operate separately from the school system, education foundations can allow for innovative programs rather than just a continuation of standard curriculum. Furthermore, in times of crisis, a public school foundation can help a school district with repairs and damage from weather events, as was the case in East Baton Rouge Parish. Nine schools within the system still aren’t open due to flood damage, but the Foundation has been a conduit for channeling approximately $600,000 from the community to help with recovery efforts.

As school budgets become tighter, more education foundations for public schools are likely to form to fill the gaps. In the Rochester area of New York, the popularity of private education associations has flourished, with five forming since 2012 and two others pending. The focus of the foundations in Rochester is to provide grants to teachers for innovative classroom projects and scholarships for graduating seniors. While the funding provided by the foundations does not completely fill the gap between state funding and operating costs, it does provide students with opportunities they might otherwise go without.—Kelley Malcolm