“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question and answers sessions with employees of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to let them explain their work. Kristi Kimball is a program officer who manages a wide range of grants designed to improve educational policy in California. Currently, the Foundation, with several partners (the Gates, Irvine and Stuart Foundations), has co-funded $3 million in grants — $1 million of it from the Hewlett Foundation — for Stanford University researchers to conduct an 18-month study of how California funds its K-12 schools. The research is the first to examine the funding system in its entirety in hopes of recommending reforms to dramatically improve the education of the state’s 6 million public school students.

Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, Kimball served in the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton Administration, in the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and in the Education Office of the  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College, and an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Can you give us a short overview of the work the Stanford researchers are doing?

Basically what they’re doing is looking at the school finance system, both the amount we spend and the way we spend it, and asking why aren’t we meeting our goals for student achievement.

There are two parts of it. One is to ask whether there are ways we could use the same amount of money and get higher student achievement.  The other is, once we know ways to be more effective with the money, to estimate how much would it cost to have every student meet the educational goals that the state has set.

All told, there are more than 20 individual studies being prepared on these questions.  They broke it down in simple ways. One just attempts to describe the way the current system works, both the finances and how it is governed. And once that’s done then the researchers can look at how well it’s working.

Why did we pick school financing as the best way to improve public school education, rather than fund research on curriculum changes or, say, teacher training?

No serious examination of the California school financing system has been undertaken in two decades. Recently, what we’ve done is ignore the underlying system and just tinker around the edges: “If we made this one little fix, what difference would that make and how much would it cost?” Or, “Let’s look at this one program and see if it has in impact.” That sort of thing.

But all of those small fixes sit on top of a giant system that already gives $50 billion a year to our schools. And we rarely have asked whether we’re spending that money in the best way possible.

If we were able to do so, that $50 billion might help buy more teacher training, more textbooks and curriculum enhancements, more time in the school day or school year-more of everything that educators think is most important for student learning.

Why is there a role for foundations in this? Why don’t politicians commission the research and act upon it?

Our political system is designed in a way that makes it very short-sighted, especially in California. We have term limits for the legislature. They’re in and out so no one feels the responsibility to fix things for the long term. A quick fix of dropping two million dollars into a new program and having a ribbon cutting is much easier and more appealing to politicians than a massive overhaul that might take years but might have a much larger effect.  This is not the fault of the politicans per se.  All of the incentives are wrong.

And particularly with the government cash strapped, politicians don’t seem to like spending money on research and on data.  For example, the state doesn’t really have systems in place to evaluate the effectiveness of past investments in education. It’s very hard to improve when you don’t have good information on your performance.  The foundations have stepped up to commission research to fill some information gaps, but in the long-term the state needs to improve their data systems and build evaluations into all of its major expenditures for education, so they know  what works and can change what doesn’t.

Another reason outside actors were necessary is because the political arena is so polarized right now.  Everyone who is concerned about education has different ideas about how to fix the problem.  Business people and conservatives and the Republican Party traditionally have said we need to reform the management, and run it more efficiently and that will solve all the problems. We’ve never given a careful hearing to that. And the folks on the other side of the aisle traditionally have said, “No, you haven’t given adequate capacity to the system. It needs more money and then we can reach the goal.” And neither side has been willing to listen to the other.  The hope is this research can bridge the partisan divide by carefully examining both sides of the debate. The foundations and the researchers don’t have to worry about competing constituencies, so we are well positioned to help build bridges between these two camps.

Is California’s challenge in reforming how it finances schools different from that of other states?

Well, we are different from many other states because we do not have a legal battle going on right now over the school funding system, and I think that is a good thing. Often these decisions are battled out in the legal system for years.  In fact, over the past decade lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools have been brought in 45 of the 50 states.

A few decades ago, the first generation of school finance law suits was focused on equalizing things between rich and poor districts.  In California the equalization process was limited by a tax reform that was passed a few years later — the result was that the combination acted to keep expenditures very low at the cost of providing quality education.   The law suit did not end up addressing  the educational outcome everyone wants.  Over time, the lawsuits have shifted from “We want as much as that district has,” to “We want good outcomes for all kids.”

This new generation of suits asserts that every child has the right to a quality education.  For example, in New York, the courts have ruled that kids weren’t getting an adequate education and that an additional $6 billion (later revised down to $2 billion) was needed per year.  But politicians need to raise money for  the settlements, and that has proven difficult in NY and other states. So far, these legal battles have caused a lot of commotion, but it is not at all clear that they generate the political will to solve the problems.

So how does the research fit into all this?

A recent California version of these lawsuits was called the Williams case, which was settled in 2004. It was one of those first-generation, equality-based lawsuits. It generated an additional $1 billion for the poorest schools. That was good, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket in a system that spends $50 billion a year. And it certainly isn’t going to get all kids to higher academic achievement.

So as soon as that suit ended there were rumblings about another lawsuit to increase funding for all schools, using this new legal approach of questioning whether all kids are receiving a quality education. In some ways, this research project is an attempt to address that question without ten years of legal wrangling. Can we get to a scientific examination of how much we’re spending and how effectively? It cuts to the chase: What really needs to be done, and how much will it cost? And, of course, how do you create the political will?

Why do you think the fate of this research will be any different from the many other attempts to reform education in the state?

One thing that makes this different from your typical research study is that, from the very beginning, it was requested by a bipartisan set of the state’s leaders: the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, the former Secretary of Education, the Democratic leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. They called for the research, they told the researchers what they thought were the key questions, and they have been briefed throughout the process on the methods being used.

There are no guarantees, but this is a historic opportunity. It’s the first study of its type in decades; it will point the way for reform; and leaders from both parties who requested the research are at the table and working together to reach agreement. They recognize there is a possibility to do something more significant than the typical tinkering around the edges.

Is there a next step for the foundations, after the research is published?

The ball is in the court of the policymakers, the interest groups, and concerned members of the public once the research is released. We have other complementary grants we’ve made to public engagement groups.  And the four foundations that funded this research are committed to staying involved, raising media attention to the need for school finance reform, and continuing to watchdog this issue.  The next step is to engage the public and the media. It is hard to convince any policymaker to take on these tough issues unless the public is demanding reform and the media is calling for it.  So that’s our next focus.

When do you expect to see results, if they are going to happen?

I think it could be anytime in the next two to four years that you’d see some reform happen.  This research effort is creating an opening.  The Governor has proclaimed 2007 his year of health care, and that’s fine with us because this education research is so dense that it will take some time for people to mull it over and figure out how to proceed.  But 2008, 2009, 2010, could be the window.    It’s pretty common to see a major reform proposal raised and considered by policymakers multiple times over the course of a few years.  Eventually they land on a solution that works for everyone.