School Discipline Reform and the Role of Atlantic Philanthropies

Atlantic Philanthropies’ work in the area of school discipline reform is a particularly striking example of how limited-life philanthropy can play a key role in social movements for children and youth.

Atlantic Philanthropies has a large and diverse giving portfolio, covering the areas of children and youth, aging, population health, and human rights and reconciliation. The foundation operates on the “giving while living” model of its benefactor, 84-year-old Chuck Feeney, and projects spending down its assets by the end of this year.

Eye_home_2In school discipline reform, Atlantic Philanthropies has been at the forefront of policy and advocacy for many years. A 2014 report called “Tilling the Field: Philanthropy’s Role in School Discipline Reform,” by Leila Fiester, shows how Atlantic helped to pursue specific strategies that brought school discipline problems into public view and galvanized a social movement to address the problems.

To work on school discipline reform, Atlantic Philanthropies supported efforts to counter the growing trend of “zero tolerance” school discipline policies. These policies have become the means of addressing problems as small as talking back to teachers, tardiness, or even preschooler tantrums, resulting in a skyrocketing rate of expulsions and arrests for U.S. students.

From 2010 through 2014, Atlantic Philanthropies invested $47 million in reforming unfair and overly punitive school discipline policies–changes that have huge implications, especially for students of color. The goal of this investment was to raise awareness of the need for school discipline reform, to advance alternative models, and push for better policies through state and local school districts.

Atlantic has continued its spend-down with some big grants in 2014 to address school discipline reform, particularly for communities of color. Atlantic gave the NAACP $4.6 million in order to “support data analyses, litigation, policy advocacy, direct representation, technical assistance, coordination and donor engagement to promote local, state and national school discipline policy reform.”

Also in 2014, Atlantic gave NEO Philanthropies $3 million “to eliminate zero tolerance school disciplinary policies by supporting grassroots advocacy through the Just and Fair Schools Fund.”

Because of the size of Atlantic’s investment, alongside its activist strategy, it was successful in spearheading national awareness about school discipline problems, and advocating for big changes in how schools handle discipline issues. The report gives a much deeper dive into how it all happened, but let’s take a quick look at the key funders and events that led to school discipline reform becoming a national priority.

In 2000, research on the negative impact of zero tolerance policies was beginning to receive more support. Funders including Ford, MacArthur, Mott, Open Society and Rockefeller invested in this early research which, by 2003, had developed into recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics for schools to find more developmentally appropriate ways to handle discipline problems.

In 2006, the American Psychological Association also took a stronger stance on the need to address school discipline problems, issuing a report recommending alternatives to zero tolerance policies and citing the growing negative impacts of removing children from their learning environments.

In 2007, a national umbrella organization formed called Dignity in Schools, which brought together parents, civil rights advocates and educators to address the problem of zero tolerance policies and how they resulted in vulnerable children and youth being pushed out of school.

The U.S. Department of Education took action in 2009 to start gathering more data on expulsion, retention, suspension and detention rates, a critical step in the process of developing a social movement to fight against zero tolerance policies. Also in 2009, the Alliance for Educational Justice was created, giving young people across the country a platform to express their views on national education policy, some of which led to the first student groups to organize against zero tolerance policies nationally. These organizations included Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), among many others.

In 2010, the Just and Fair Schools Fund (later renamed Communities for Just Schools Fund) was launched by Atlantic. That same year, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and the Annie E. Casey Foundation funded a study from the Southern Poverty Law Center called Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis. The study, produced by Indiana University’s Equity Project, showed the racial disparities among student suspensions and an increase in use of suspension.

Also pivotal to the movement to reform school discipline, the report, Breaking Schools’ Rules, was published in July of 2011. Atlantic and Open Society Foundations funded the report, which came to the attention of Attorney General Eric Holder, who called it a “landmark effort.” The study examined the histories of over 900,000 Texas students and uncovered disturbing trends in high rates of school discipline and expulsion leading to more truancy and involvement with juvenile justice.

In 2014, Atlantic, The California Endowment, NoVo Foundation and Open Society Foundations funded The Council of State Governments Justice Center, which published “The School Discipline Consensus Report.” This report offers practical strategies for school discipline including tiered levels for school discipline and less punitive and justice-involved ways to redirect students with behavior problems.

Also in 2014, with funding from Atlantic, Kellogg, Edward W. Hazen, Schott, and Open Society, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice convened a National Leadership Summit on School Discipline and Climate in Washington, D.C., which brought together leaders to find more ways to keep kids out of court and in school.

As David Callahan writes in his interview with Kavitha Mediratta, who managed Atlantic’s grantmaking for school discipline reform, “The goal was to get the federal government to put out more data on this issue and use mandates and incentives to get school districts to change their disciplinary practices.”

The financial investment by Atlantic and other philanthropies has helped put the issue of school discipline reform firmly on the national agenda. The key now will be implementation of behavioral interventions and other, less punitive approaches set forth by “The School Discipline Census Report” and other guides to improving school discipline practices.

Adding to the momentum to address school discipline reform, both My Brother’s Keeper and Prosperity Together outline specific goals and targets for improving school discipline reform, particularly for communities of color.

So, now that Atlantic is winding down, which funders will step forward to keep this social movement on course? Here are a few funders that remain active on school discipline reform, and who may be interested in carrying out more of this work:

Kellogg: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has committed $15 million from 2014 to 2017 to The New Venture Fund, to “create healthy living and learning environments for young men of color, ending harsh disciplinary practices and the school-to-prison pipeline, through support of the School Discipline and Environment Initiative.”

Ford: Given the Ford Foundation’s realigned grants strategy around equity, along with its support of My Brother’s Keeper, school discipline reform will likely remain a priority for the foundation. As an example of Ford’s support, the foundation gave NEO Philanthropy $300,000 in 2012 for support of the Just and Fair Schools Fund and “to support grassroots organizing initiatives to eliminate harsh school discipline policies and practices and uphold the right to education for all youth.”

Open Society: The Open Society Foundations has had a longstanding dedication to addressing this issue. In 2014, OSF gave the National Association of State Boards of Education $300,000 for “strengthen[ing] the capacity of state boards of education to ensure that school districts provide all students with equal educational opportunities by improving school climate and discipline.”

Gates: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may be taking a stronger role in shaping school culture, as evidenced by a 2014 grant of over $1.5 million to Sound Discipline, which works to support trauma-informed and positive discipline practices in Washington State K-12 schools.

California Endowment: The California Endowment has made several grants in the area of school discipline reform in recent years, including a $350,000 grant in 2014 to the ACLU for the purpose of “change[ing] policies and systems in California so that they prioritize the social and emotional health of students, support positive school discipline practices and eliminate school suspensions.”

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About Kiersten Marek 22 Articles
Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is a clinical social worker in Rhode Island, and a Senior Editor for Los Angeles-based Inside Philanthropy, where she writes about economic and social philanthropy. Kiersten is also the author of Know Thyself: A Kid's Guide to the Archetypes, an identity development workbook.