Getting Political: Why This Community Foundation is Backing an Education Bill

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) is one of the biggest philanthropic forces in the Bay Area, a region at the epicenter of technology and innovation that is transforming the way the world lives, works and plays. Partly because of wealth generated by the tech boom, SVCF has become the largest community foundation in the United States. 

While SVCF tends not to throw its weight around in Sacramento (being a nonpartisan foundation and all), it certainly has some weight to throw around. And one of the most interesting things that SVCF is doing right now is publicly supporting a legislative bill. We’re talking about Senate Bill No. 359, also known as the California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015.

In a nutshell, here’s the problem: Research has shown that when California students reach high school, they are frequently asked to repeat courses that they already took in eighth grade, such as algebra. Oftentimes, these students have already passed these courses and satisfied the math requirement. And the research shows that black and Latino students are being disproportionately targeted.

This is a long-standing problem in California school districts, because these targeted students don’t have time to take all the math classes they need to be competitive for admission to California colleges and universities. Authored by Senator Holly Mitchell, Senate Bill No. 359 would require California school districts to enforce objective policies on how students are placed in math. It may come as a surprise to learn that a lot of schools have no such policies in place at this time. Although most of the research on this issue has been centered on the Bay Area, this is a statewide problem that stretches all across California.

What really caught our attention is how SVCF has thrown itself behind this education fairness and equality bill. SVCF’s Sue McAllister said that some of the foundation’s own staff members have encountered this precise situation in their own educational experiences. Meanwhile, as we've reported, this is a funder with a strong interest in math education.

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It’s very unusual for a community foundation to push for legislation at the state level, but that’s exactly what SVCF is doing. Community funders often shy away from politics, but here’s one that is embracing politics to help it achieve one of its funding missions. It seems that this particular issue hit a little too close to home. 

The SVCF staff, led by Gina Dalma, has been engaging the issue on social media, tweeting about it, and even putting up a Change.org petition. McAllister said that there has been widespread support for this bill, and it really is difficult to argue with its principles. So right now, SVCF is hoping and working for Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.

“By signing SB 359 into law, Governor Brown can end this disturbing practice in our schools and ensure that all students have a fair chance to succeed in math,” said CEO Emmett D. Carson. “SB 359 presents an opportunity to increase the number of minority students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math by ensuring there is a systematic process in place to protect them from being held back unfairly.”

So what else has SVCF been up to lately?

Well, education overall remains a top priority for this Bay Area funder. Aside from its high school math campaign, SVCF has devoted a lot of energy to The Big Lift. This program is aimed at increasing literacy among San Mateo County kids, starting in preschool and low-income districts.

Also, on October 9–11, SVCF will be hosting an innovation conference for other community foundations, private foundations, and individual donors to address questions about the role of funders in a time of fast-paced technological change. This is a first-of-its-kind event that’s part of the newly launched SVCF Learning Institute. The big theme is economic inequality and insecurity, with the severe lack of housing and public transportation in focus.

“How community foundations individually and collectively address the varied impacts of technological advances on their communities is one of the most important challenges facing all of us in the 21st century, regardless of where we are located,” Carson said in a press release. “I hope many of our colleagues will join us in October 2016 as we welcome a new era of creativity and innovation for our field.”