AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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AFT Launches New Fund To Spur Education Innovations

The AFT on April 28 launched the first union-led, private foundation-supported effort to provide grants to local AFT unions nationwide to develop and implement bold education innovations in public schools.

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The AFT Innovation Fund is the first program in which teacher unions throughout the country will design and lead education innovations that are funded, in large part, by four of the nation's most prominent private philanthropies. The initial $2.8 million secured for the first set of grants come from, in alphabetical order, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, as well as the AFT's previously announced financial commitment.

"The AFT Innovation Fund will encourage unions to think outside the box and develop pioneering, sustainable ways to strengthen public schools. We want applicants to think big, think boldly and think beyond their usual comfort zone," says AFT president Randi Weingarten, who spoke at a press conference to launch the fund and announce the foundation supporters. "It's very exciting that the nation's most renowned private foundations are showing support and confidence for a brand-new union-led endeavor."

AFT state and local affiliates can begin applying for grants for fall of the 2009-10 school year. Grants will be distributed for ventures in which the union would lead collaborative and sustainable education innovations. Priorities for the first round of applications include:

  • The design of unique approaches to teacher evaluation, staffing high-need schools with strong teachers and other cutting-edge approaches to teacher-quality issues.
  • New compensation systems to enable educators to have differentiated roles, responsibilities and rewards.
  • Community approaches to address out-of-school factors that affect student learning. 

From left, Innovation Fund executive director Adam Urbanski, Randi Weingarten and board chair Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

The fund's 16-member advisory board, which held its first meeting on April 28, is a diverse group of prominent educators, civil rights advocates, venture capital executives and academics. The board's chair is Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief academic and accountability auditor for the Detroit Public Schools and former chief executive officer of the Cleveland Municipal School District. The fund's executive director is Adam Urbanski, an AFT vice president, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, and founding director of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN).

"The AFT Innovation Fund clearly demonstrates the AFT's enduring commitment to the next generation and should put to rest anyone's misperception that unions aren't reformers. Each successful innovation through this program should be adaptable anywhere, potentially benefiting hundreds of thousands of children," Byrd-Bennett says.

Eli Broad, founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, praised the fund's goals. "Given their daily frontline experience with students, teachers-and the unions that represent them-can play a pivotal role in identifying innovative, large-scale solutions that will position both students and teachers to succeed," Broad said. "We applaud the AFT for taking the lead in encouraging educators to generate innovations that will result in measurable, dramatic, districtwide improvements in student achievement."

The Ford Foundation said it was pleased to contribute to the fund. "Creating high-quality schools for our most vulnerable students is a collective effort, requiring the involvement and participation of everybody," says Jeannie Oakes, director of education and scholarship at the Ford Foundation. "This fund will enable teachers-the people closest to the children-to play an important and constructive role in education reform."

The education director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spoke of the fund's potential. "To dramatically increase the number of students who graduate high school and go on to complete college, we partner with organizations that are focused on measurably increasing student achievement for low-income and minority students," says Vicki L. Phillips, director of education at the Gates Foundation. "Ensuring every student has an effective teacher every year, especially those students with the greatest needs, is at the heart of reaching this goal. The AFT Innovation Fund can help put teachers at the forefront of bold reforms like common state standards; innovative, evidenced-based measures of evaluating teacher effectiveness; differentiated pay and school-based teacher contracts."

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation said it chose to partner with the AFT because of the fund's promising potential. "The Mott has long valued education as a stepping stone to success for families, communities and the country," says Maureen Smyth, senior vice president of programs and communication. "By helping to inform and inspire education reform, the Innovation Fund will spark new opportunities to raise student achievement and build school and community partnerships."

Please visit the Innovation Fund Web site for the full list of advisory board members as well as the fund overview, application information and more.

April 28, 2009