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AFT (and Four Foundations!) Flesh Out the Innovation Fund

Four private foundations—the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation—will partner with the American Federation of Teachers through its Innovation Fund, representatives of the foundations and the AFT announced this afternoon.

The private-foundation contributions, in addition to the AFT's down payment of $1 million, bring the fund's total to $2.8 million. Funds are available for local affiliates to "incubate promising ideas to improve schools," AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

She gave a couple of possible examples: Districts and teachers could propose a new way of evaluating teachers that would incorporate evidence of student achievement. Or they could come up with a school-turnaround model akin to the Fresh Start project in Chicago or the now-defunct New York City chancellor's district.

Both Weingarten and the foundation folks spoke a lot about the importance of working together and collaboration. Weingarten, clearly echoing her National Press Club speech earlier this year, said the accepted applications will be "different, innovative, unique, out-of-the-box, and, yes, have a risk attached to them."

"Some [individuals] who describe [unions] as obstacles to change, obstacles to reform—the innovation fund should put that argument to rest," Weingarten continued.

She added that the different stakeholders engaged in school reform should "start working together rather than squabbling about who is and isn't the reformer."

Both she and Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester, N.Y., affiliate who will serve as the fund's executive director, were quick to minimize the fact that AFT's education-reform objectives haven't always been in line with those of the private foundations. (Broad and Gates, for instance, were said to be primed to offer financial support behind D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's two-tiered pay proposal, although as far as I know, neither foundation ever confirmed that on the record.)

I asked Weingarten who will have the final say over which projects get financed, because it's clearly possible that local affiliates might promote something that makes other locals or the national office cringe.

"We are a big tent," Weingarten said about her union. "Many districts experiment in different ways. We encourage that, and have encouraged it as long as I can remember."

Although an advisory body will have input into the decisionmaking process, an executive board that includes Weingarten and other AFT officials get to make the final call on which applications win approval.

She said that the fund plans to make its first grants this September, concurrent with its second advisory-board meeting.

While beginning her remarks this afternoon, Ms. Weingarten joked, "This is not an announcement about switching parties," referring to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican to the Democratic Party. An aside, to be sure, but as this AP story notes, there are some interesting labor implications here. Though the Dems are inching closer to a filibuster-proof number of senators, Specter isn't a supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize. Read a bit more about the teachers' union implications of the bill here.

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