A May 5 webinar rolled out the welcome mat to AFT affiliates and urged them to put their biggest dreams into action by applying for grants under the union's new Innovation Fund. This $2.8 million joint venture is designed to put the resources of some the nation's largest foundations behind "bottom-up" approaches developed by teachers and the unions that support them-and, in doing so, to underscore how the best ideas in education begin with frontline buy-in.
AFT president Randi Weingarten led the webcast with Adam Urbanski, the Innovation Fund's new executive director. AFT affiliates from California to Rhode Island logged into the session, where both Weingarten and Urbanski stressed that the fund deliberately combines a streamlined application process and ample technical assistance for one simple reason-to get the widest range of "outside the box" ideas on the table, making sure that no AFT affiliate misses out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"Apply, apply, apply," Weingarten told the audience. "This is about you controlling your own destiny."
Applications for the first round of grants are due by May 26, with grant announcements slated for Sept. 22. However, ideas do not need to be fully fleshed out for the May 26 deadline. There will be ample opportunity for locals to work with the AFT when it comes to refining proposals, both Urbanski and Weingarten emphasized, and there will be additional rounds in the future. "We're in this for the long haul," Weingarten said.
Individual projects are eligible for grants of up to $200,000. AFT locals, state federations, union-represented charter schools or combinations of those groups are invited to apply. The grants can be for planning, implementation or both. When it comes to selecting projects, the Innovation Fund's board of directors will be looking for key elements such as sustainability through buy-in of local AFT leadership, and reach that extends beyond a single school or classroom. The grants are not about "tinkering around the edges or opting out of the system," Urbanski explained. The best ideas should "strengthen not only our union but also our public schools."
Priority areas for the first round of grants include designs for systemwide approaches that cultivate effective teaching; professional pathways and new compensation systems that enable educators to have new roles, responsibilities and rewards; and strategies that address out-of-school learning factors in ways that lead to high-quality, scalable and adaptable options in urban public schools.
But ideas that do not fit into one of these categories also are welcomed and encouraged, Weingarten said. "If you have a break-out-of-the-box, big, new idea, please put that in as well."
For years, union leaders have said that teacher-driven, union-supported reform offered the best prospects for school improvement, Weingarten said. With the AFT Innovation Fund, "we're making that bet-if we create this from the bottom up, we will see some amazing things happen."
The new initiative is funded jointly by the AFT, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation also has provided assistance for planning and launching the fund. Since its debut at an April 28 press conference, the Innovation Fund has sparked widespread interest and extensive coverage among media outlets such as Education Daily, the Washington Post and Education Week.
An overview, application and related materials are available on the AFT Innovation Fund Web site.