New Report Calls for Operating Standards for Public Education Funds

The economic news for many public school districts has not been good lately; there are deficits, budget shortfalls and levies that do not pass. Fewer dollars must be spread further across districts. School officials have to make tough choices but still must work to provide a high-quality education for their students. Increasingly, support for public schools comes from outside, nonprofit education assistance organizations who provide a number of services, from booster clubs and parent-teacher groups fundraising in the community to local education funds (LEFs) that promote reform.

As these organizations continue to grow in importance and number (according to a report from the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at The Urban Institute more than 19,000 nonprofit education assistance groups are working in communities), their operating practices and accountability are increasingly significant. With this in mind, the Public Education Network (PEN) created the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education, which, according to a press release from Pen, “was charged with making a renewed case for civic investment, highlighting the work of organizations that can build and channel that investment, and developing standards for the rapidly rising number of citizen-driven, local public education assistance organizations … working throughout our nation to improve public schools.” The commission’s recent report, “An Appeal to All Americans,” provides an outline of standards of practice for these organizations “consistent with the highest levels of nonprofit practices and accountability to the public.”

The report calls for organizations to:
  1. Adopt and adhere to the standards as a requirement for membership.
  2. Regularly provide or refer members to “best practices” information.
  3. Continue to document best practices adopted by organizations.
  4. Develop and implement ways to recognize exemplary organizations.

We spoke via email with Amanda Broun, senior vice president at PEN, about the report and public education assistance organizations.

SPM: What was the impetus for developing standards of practice for public and local education funds?


Broun: There are growing numbers of these public education assistance organizations, and they play an increasingly critical role in supporting school reform. Many raise large amounts of private dollars; many are able to leverage public dollars through supporting tax levies and bond referenda; many support innovative practices in their districts. Along with these important roles comes an obligation for transparency and accountability, and we believe it is important to put these in place proactively.

SPM: As a follow-up for that, what do nonprofit education assistance organizations do?

Broun: These are intermediary organizations that work between the school district and the community. There is a range of activities they take on. Some are school foundations the primarily raise money to fund activities that the superintendent requests. Others, including the members of Public Education Network, are local education funds (LEFs) that engage the public in understanding what school reform is all about, and why they should be interested and active in supporting public education, whether or not they have children attending public schools. A recent report PEN released, which was commissioned of the Urban Institute, entitled, “Who Helps Public Schools?” goes into great depth in describing the different kinds of public education assistance organizations and what they do. It can be found at http://www.publiceducation.org/pdf/research/who_helps_public_schools.pdf.

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SPM: Why are these organizations important?

Broun:
Education is integral to our economy, our security and our democracy — these will only function well if Americans play their civic role in supporting public education — setting the agenda and paying attention to what the school board and other school officials are doing, allocating resources and voting with public education in mind, and holding elected officials accountable for ensuring that all students have a quality public education. Local Education Funds help to ensure that the public is playing its rightful role. In addition, LEFs engage the public in determining priorities for its schools, share innovative practices across the network and often provide resources for innovation within their district(s), and a range of other critical activities.

SPM: Are they more prevalent in certain states or districts?

Broun: The members of Public Education Network are all in high-poverty school districts, both urban and rural. School foundations are also found in wealthier suburban districts.

SPM: Can you give me a brief overview of how these standards were developed?

Broun: PEN convened a National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education to develop both a case statement on the need for greater civic investment in public education and the standards for public education assistance organizations. (The commission’s report containing both of these can be found at http://publiceducation.org/pubs_20110526_report.asp.) The commission used as its starting point the general standards that have been recommended by the Independent Sector for nonprofit organizations generally and tailored them for the education sector. Sitting on the commission were representatives of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, as well as experts in education, business and other areas, all of whom brought their experience and expertise to bear on this effort.

SPM: Can you also give a brief summary of the standards?

Broun: The standards fall into the categories of mission and programs, evaluation and transparency, responsible stewardship, legal compliance and personal and professional integrity. They cover such things as ensuring that programs (and grantmaking, if any) align with mission of the organization; that the organization engages in regular reviews or “audits” of its organizational practices, programs and finances; that the board of directors and CEO follow good governance practices; and that the organization follows applicable legal practices.

SPM: How can these standards be implemented, or how are they being implemented currently?

Broun: The Commission makes some recommendations in their report as to how they would be implemented. They encourage individual organizations to conduct the recommended “audits” and report results to their stakeholders, and to take advantage of professional development opportunities. They recommend that associations of these organizations: make adoption of the standards (or the standards as amended by the association) a requirement of membership in the association, regularly document and refer members and others to best practices information and consider ways to recognize members who have met the standards. PEN’s board has approved the standards, and our membership committee is fine tuning the standards to apply even more specifically to our member organizations.

SPM: Can you give me a brief background on PEN and the work they do?

Broun: Public Education Network (PEN) is a national association of local education funds (LEFs) and individuals working to advance public school reform in low-income communities across our country. PEN believes an active, vocal constituency is the key to ensuring that every child, in every community, benefits from a quality public education.

PEN and its members are building public demand and mobilizing resources for quality public education on behalf of eight million children in 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. PEN has expanded its work internationally to include members in Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa and Tanzania.


Our Mission

To build public demand and mobilize resources for quality public education for all children through a national constituency of local education funds and individuals.

Our Guiding Principles
  • Public education is fundamental to a democratic, civil, prosperous society.
  • Public schools are critical institutions for breaking the cycle of poverty and redressing social inequities.
  • Education reform must be systemic to be effective.
  • Public engagement, community support, and adequate resources are essential to the success of public education.
  • Independent community-based organizations must play a central role in building and sustaining broad support for quality public education and for achieving significant reform in the nation’s public schools.
  • Parents and caregivers should be involved in all attempts to improve public schools.

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