Wading into the weeds of federal grantmaking is an unusual form of celebrity philanthropy, a sector where famous donors are more likely to pay to put their name on buildings or fund scholarships. But A-list actor Matthew McConaughey says the wonky work is one of the best ways he can help make schools safer.
McConaughey announced the Greenlights Grant Initiative Thursday in an email to 20,000 district leaders around the country. The effort aims to help schools navigate the complicated grant process necessary to access more than $1 billion in federal funding for school security measures and child well-being.
For the most under-resourced districts, who typically lack personnel to help with the application process, the project will also hire grantwriters to complete applications. And it will advocate for longer term changes to the paperwork-heavy, jargon-laden federal grantmaking process.
“The superintendents at so many of the schools that are high-risk, they are wearing three or four hats,” McConaughey said in an interview on Good Morning America. “They’re the superintendent, they’re the P.E. teacher, they’re the bus driver. They don’t have the time or the resources to fill out these grants. It’s intimidating.”
The work is personal for McConaughey. A native of Uvalde, Texas, he advocated for new school safety funding after a May 2022 shooting at the city’s Robb Elementary School, tearfully sharing stories of the 19 children and two teachers who died there during an appearance at a White House press briefing.
A month after that tragedy, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major piece of federal gun legislation in three decades. It included new funding for school-based mental health, child well-being, and safety measures.
McConaughey was frustrated when Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican who represents Uvalde, told him that the districts that may need the money most had not cut through the red tape to access it.
“Let’s make sure that the first bill passed in 28 years to help all of our children and schools matters,” McConaughey said in a video announcing the new grants initiative Thursday.
Get Help With Federal School Safety Grants
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act included $300 million in new funding for the STOP School Violence Act, a program created after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that provides funding for school security upgrades and violence prevention. It also included $1 billion for a Stronger Connections grant program, which funds school climate and student support services in schools, $50 million for out-of-school programs, and $1 billion to train new school counselors and school psychologists.
But schools faced hurdles accessing those funds from the start. By March 2023, just one state, Oklahoma, had awarded its share of the Stronger Connections grants, drawing concern from advocates.
As of Thursday, 17 states have made awards to high-need districts, and 12 states and the District of Columbia plan to make awards in the next few months. Eight states have open applications, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said.
Helping district administrators access federal grants
McConaughey’s initiative will focus on competitive federal grants, including those funded by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and a menu of others posted on the Greenlights Grant Initiative website. The Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, founded by the actor and his wife Camila to support after-school programs, will run the program.
The initiative will receive support from AASA, the School Superintendents Association; software and customer service company Salesforce; and the established federal grants consulting firm McAllister and Quinn.
Navigating the grants process has long been a challenge for school districts, said Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy at AASA. Language in spending bills gets translated into regulations and awards criteria that can be up to 50 pages for a single grant, she said. Busy district leaders, focused on issues like staffing challenges and COVID-19 recovery, don’t typically check the Federal Register where funding possibilities are posted, Pudelski said.
“The goal of this is to get tons of districts to apply that have never applied before,” she said. “Obviously if they don’t get the money this time, they will know what to do next year.”
In addition to resources for all districts, like webinars, funding alerts, and implementation guidance, the organization will provide grantwriting services to “high need” districts that have not previously applied for federal grants, said Shannon Rotenberg, the executive director of the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation.
In the longer term, the project will work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to explore ways to simplify and improve the grants process, and McConaughey will advocate for lawmakers to continue funding the grant programs.
The grants work is natural extension of McConaughey’s foundation’s existing programs, Rotenberg said. In one school that hosts a Just Keep Livin’ after-school program, an assistant principal reported he had one social-emotional learning specialist for his 3,000 students, and he wasn’t aware that there was federal funding that could help alleviate his workload, she said.
McConaughey mulled an independent run for Texas governor during the 2022 election cycle before saying political leadership “is not the path I’m choosing to take in this moment.”
Since the Uvalde shooting, he’s aimed to take a practical, nonpartisan tone in many of his public comments. McConaughey told Good Morning America he hoped the new project would be a meaningful solution to challenges schools face.
“It’s a public-private partnership,” he said. “It’s a civics class in supply and demand.”