Meet Detroit’s Purse-String Holders

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 25, 2016

Last week, the Governance and Finance Blog examined the powerful influence that private actors are having on the education reform landscape. This week, we take a closer look at how this phenomenon is playing out in Detroit.

Photo Courtesy of Gehad Hadidi

Photo Courtesy of Gehad Hadidi

For a cash-strapped district with abysmal facilities and rampant teacher sickouts, every dollar counts in Detroit. Local, state, and federal funds just haven’t been enough to support the struggling district. Philanthropic organizations, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Skillman Foundation, and The Kresge Foundation, have stepped in by making considerable donations to education reform in Detroit. As a result, they have a considerable amount of power and influence in determining how Detroit’s students are educated. Meet the foundations that are shaping Detroit’s future.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Established in 1930, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) is a Michigan-based nonprofit grant-making foundation. According to their 2015 annual report, WKKF’s belief is that “all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive.” WKKF focuses its contributions in high-poverty areas of Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, and New Orleans. Internationally, they also provide support in Mexico and Haiti.

WKKF provides substantial support to Michigan and in particular, Detroit. In 2014, the foundation committed over $44 million to Michigan. Twelve million dollars went directly to Detroit in the form of 33 new grants. Goals for Detroit set by WKKF include math and reading proficiency by third grade, increasing the number of infants born at healthy birth weights, and improving family poverty rates in the city. Two of their main partnerships are with the Detroit Parent Network and Excellent Schools Detroit. WKKF supports Detroit Parent Network by providing training for parents in education advocacy. Excellent Schools Detroit is a coalition also supported by WKKF whose goal is to provide every child with an excellent school, whether traditional public, charter, or private, by 2020.

The Skillman Foundation 

Founded by Michigan resident Rose Skillman in 1960, The Skillman Foundation believes every child in Detroit deserves to attend a great school. The foundation maintains a neutral stance on governance, stating that quality is more important than whether a school is private, public, or charter. The Skillman Foundation’s Three Pillars of Quality inform their work. They value strong math and reading instruction, student voice and personalized learning, and connections with the community.

The Skillman Foundation invests heavily in organizations that work closely with Detroit. In 2015 alone, they provided Michigan-based organizations with 15 new grants totaling $2.47 million. Organizations receiving substantial grants include:

Education Trust was supported to continue their work as an advocacy organization that offers comprehensive education data to stakeholders in the community. Grant dollars were provided to assist Michigan Future in developing a portfolio of open-enrollment high schools designed to prepare Detroit students for college. Similar to WKKF, The Skillman Foundation also supports Excellent Schools Detroit with their goal of providing excellent education to all students.

The Kresge Foundation

Established by Sebastian Spering Kresge in 1924, The Kresge Foundation is a $3.5 billion national foundation based in Detroit. The Kresge Foundation partners with a range of educational organizations and has three main focus areas:

  • Aligning and strengthening urban higher education ecosystems
  • Building the capacity of institutions focused on low-income and underrepresented students
  • Strengthening pathways to and through college

Recently, The Kresge Foundation has been investing in early childhood education. A $20 million initiative called The Kresge Early Years for Success (KEYS) was recently announced. The program will create new early childhood facilities, improve maternal health services, provide grants to early childhood collaborations, invest in national early childhood expertise, and create an alliance with WKKF in order to implement the initiative.

Foundation Dollars Are Shaping Detroit’s Future

When foundations provide financial backing for education, organizations are not free to simply spend this money as they please. Foundations provide grants to those who are willing to fulfill their mission statements and advance their agendas. While early childhood education programming, college-preparatory high schools, and parental education advocacy are unlikely to harm Detroit, it is important to consider what may be lost in pursuing these particular areas of reform. There are always tradeoffs. When organizations are incentivized to focus on specific reform efforts, other areas of need may be overlooked and democratic oversight may be lost. While foundations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Skillman Foundation, and The Kresge Foundation are undoubtedly making positive contributions to Detroit’s future, it is important to be cognizant of the power they hold in determining which aspects of education are valued and promoted.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.