Failing Forward: Stumbles to Increase Educational Attainment

In meetings with school leaders and state policymakers, Dr. West-Scantlebury, then a recent transplant to the state, could not believe what she heard. “Our schools are doing just fine,” she was told. “Arkansas is ranked fifth in the country in education according to Education Week. The state’s investments in public education have paid off — it’s time to refocus elsewhere.”

How could state leaders declare “mission accomplished” in a state with entrenched generational poverty, alarming illiteracy rates, a growing number of academically distressed schools, and an achievement gap that left far too many students and communities of color behind? Clearly, there was no plan, no guiding star. The public education system in Arkansas was failing its students, parents, and communities. It was time to form a plan and act to unlock Arkansans’ educational and economic potential.

After yet another frustrating meeting in spring 2007, Dr. West-Scantlebury demanded more for public education in Arkansas, where nearly 50 cents of every public dollar had been invested in the state’s K-12 education system. With an annual education budget of $2.75 billion, the state invested significant resources in its future workforce — resources far greater than the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s (WRF) $150 million endowment.

With nearly 40 years of leadership in the state, the Foundation was committed to Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s charge to ensure that Arkansas would

become a thriving and prosperous state that would benefit all Arkansans.

What was our role?

As a systems-change funder, the Foundation knew that forging change in Arkansas’s public education system would require vision and transformational goals. WRF set out to leverage the state’s multi-billion dollar education budget to create and implement strategies to prepare students for the 21st century global economy.

A priority of the Moving the Needle strategic plan was to create a vision and goals for K-12 education in the state. The Foundation began working closely with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) to build relationships with its leadership to increase educational attainment for all Arkansans. The Foundation also established statewide education initiatives such as the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, part of a national campaign to ensure all children read on grade level by the end of the third grade; invested in policy change and advocacy; and collaborated to promote high-quality learning opportunities through the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign. WRF supported several programs to assist children, youth, and families outside of the education system with the understanding that many social issues and forces outside schools affected what happened inside them. The Foundation used grantmaking to build the partnerships, case, and evidence for transformation of the state’s education system.

How did we fail?

After years of cultivating partnerships, the state’s commissioner of education approved a visioning process in 2013. WRF provided more than $100,000 to support ADE’s process to engage stakeholders, analyze data, and create a plan to transform the state’s education system.

Although a K-12 strategic plan was ultimately created for the state, no public will existed beyond the planning process to drive change and implementation. The process also lacked the local relationships and connections to authentically engage students, parents, and business leaders. ADE’s plan was excellent, but it was destined to sit on a shelf to collect dust.

Some foundations might have given up, sulking about lost dollars, social and political capital, and staff time. Instead, the Foundation strategically pushed onward to make failure an important part of the process and journey. The Foundation and its Board were prepared to make a major investment by taking a leading role to build public will, transform public policy, and create innovative models in Arkansas communities.

In June 2014, Dr. West-Scantlebury called long-time colleague Kathy Smith at the Walton Family Foundation to discuss WRF’s commitment to change public education. Both foundations had previously collaborated to support the state’s transition to high-quality, rigorous state standards for public education and co-invested to improve the state’s teacher pipeline.

Both leaders knew they needed to act boldly to radically transform the system. No statewide initiative had yet taken advantage of the financial resources and public leadership of two of the state’s largest foundations in support of a statewide coalition of students, families, educators, community leaders, business leaders, and policymakers.

“We knew Arkansas well enough to know that there was more common ground here in terms of public education than not,” said Dr. West-Scantlebury. “We also realized that as funders, we were probably the best and most likely entities to get everyone around a common table to create a long-term vision and roadmap for realizing that vision. It was an opportunity to play a leadership role that no one else could play.”

Past failures and lessons learned generated something entirely new and more powerful. In July 2014, ADE, the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Walton Family Foundation, and WRF publicly launched ForwARd Arkansas, a public-private partnership to dramatically transform Arkansas’s public education system.

Within a year, the Foundation and its partners engaged more than 8,500 Arkansans and, based on their feedback, released ForwARd: A New Vision for Arkansas Education, a comprehensive vision for Arkansas’s education system accompanied by 95 concrete recommendations to improve students’ educational outcomes. This new vision was based on what Arkansans wanted for themselves and their students as well as baseline data on education in Arkansas. In short, the vision and recommendations were bold, ambitious, and attainable. Even more important, a statewide movement now was underway to transform education in Arkansas.

What We Learned

  • LEADERSHIP MATTERS. Philanthropy should embrace its leadership role in transforming complex systems and policies.
  • CHANGE REQUIRES LONG-TERM INVESTMENT. Creating the conditions for structural change took time. WRF had to be patient for the right moment to accelerate progress.
  • RELATIONSHIPS MATTER. Authentic relationships were critical for a complex transformation process.
  • SHARED VALUES GUIDE THE PROCESS. The Foundation firmly held onto core values to remain transparent and authentically engage residents


Our Moving the Needle story doesn’t end here. We invite you to read Looking Back, Failing Forward to join us as we examine lessons from our failures and continue to make progress toward our founder’s vision of a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefits all Arkansans.



WRF affirms the legacy of our founder who envisioned a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefits all Arkansans.

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Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

Our mission is to relentlessly pursue economic, educational, social, ethnic, and racial equity for all Arkansans.