With support and leadership from the Public Education Network (PEN), local education funds (LEFs) have worked for two decades to 1) educate and mobilize their communities so that citizen voices are influential in education policy discussions; and 2) support effective partnerships between school district insiders and outsiders to improve the quality of children's education. However, as Useem's study of local education funds points out, it has been difficult to identify the many roles that LEFs play in their communities, the work that they undertake, the obstacles that they encounter, and the contributions that they make. Useem also suggests why the work of LEFs defies simple description. As brokers, LEFs work behind the scenes and in partnership with others, which contributes to their invisibility as catalysts and supporters of educational improvement. LEFs also are highly adaptive organizations that typically customize their change strategies to particular communities. Such attention to local context results in tremendous variation in the organization, work, and accomplishments of LEFs. At the same time, the highly individual nature of each LEF often obscures the overarching values, purposes, and goals that these organizations share, thus obscuring a collective identity.
As they mark 20 years of work in public education, LEF and PEN leaders are prescient in their insistence on further research into the role and accomplishments of local education funds in shaping the landscape of public schooling. In August 2003, at the request of PEN, Research for Action (RFA) began work on developing a conceptual framework for: 1) understanding the role and work of LEFs and the many factors that influence what they do and how they do it; and 2) assessing their contributions to public education.
This framework will be used to guide future empirical research on LEFs and to develop tools that LEFs themselves can use in a process of self-assessment. Continued research and assessment will provide public education stakeholders with credible evidence and a deeper understanding about how LEFs carry out their missions and demonstrate successes. At the same time, it will provide firm ground for LEF and PEN leaders to chart the next generation of work. This report was prepared for Public Education Network by Research for Action.