Fighting for Equity in Education

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Questioning The Role of Philanthropy in Education

Friday April 4, 2014

One of the lesser known recommendations of the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling was that the Australian Government should create a fund to provide national leadership in philanthropy in schooling and to support schools in need of assistance to develop philanthropic partnerships. It said that greater use should be made of philanthropy to support schools.

A survey by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that philanthropic organisations provided $23.6 million in donations to school education in Australia in 2013 out of a total of $391 million distributed by philanthropic organisations responding to the survey.

In contrast to Australia, philanthropic organisations are heavily involved in school education in the United States and distribute billions to schools. The Gates, Walton and Broad foundations have come to exercise vast influence over American education policy through their strategic investments in education. The grants are used to support charter performance pay, vouchers and other market-based policies in education.

The influence of these foundations has been heavily criticised by advocates of public education. As Diane Ravitch, author of the Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error, has said: “There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.”

The experience with these wealthy philanthropic foundations in the United States is a warning about increasing the role of philanthropy in public schools in Australia.

The following is an address by Joanne Barken to the Network for Public Education conference in Austin on March 1-2 about the role of big philanthropies in education policy.

Criticizing philanthropy of any kind is tricky. To most people, a negative appraisal sounds off-base or churlish—just another instance of “No good deed goes unpunished.” Criticizing the immense private foundations that finance and shape the market-model “reform” of public education in the United States produces the same reaction. “You’re going after Bill Gates?” I’ve been asked incredulously. “Leave him alone. He’s doing great work in Africa.”

Actually, the Gates Foundation’s work in Africa has serious critics, but suppose, for the sake of argument, that the foundation does much good there. Or suppose that Bloomberg Philanthropies announces tomorrow that it will spend $1 billion over the next five years to promote gun control in the United States. Would those of us who oppose market-model ed-reform but support mosquito nets for Africa and gun control here still criticize the mega-foundations? Would we criticize them in the same way?

There are at least three approaches to criticizing the role of big philanthropy in ed-reform. Understanding how they differ makes for a more effective analysis and stronger arguments.

The first approach focuses on the failure of specific policies pushed by the foundations and the harm they do to teaching and learning. For example, an exposé of using value added modeling to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers would deal with the inherent unreliability of the calculations, the nonsensical use of faulty formulas to measure growth in learning, and the negative consequences of rating teachers with such a flawed tool.

The second approach examines how big philanthropy’s ed-reform activity undermines the democratic control of public education, an institution that is central to a functioning democracy. The questions to ask are these: Has the public’s voice in the governance of public education been strengthened or weakened? Are politicians more or less responsive? Is the press more or less free to inform them?

This approach pinpoints certain types of foundation activity: paying the salaries of high-level personnel to do ed reform work within government departments; making grants to education departments dependent on specific politicians remaining in office; promoting mayoral control and state control of school districts instead of control by elected school boards; financing scores of education reform nonprofits to implement and advocate for the foundations’ pet policies – activity that has undermined the autonomy and creativity of the nonprofit sector in education; funding (thus influencing) the national professional associations of government officials, including the National Conference of State Legislatures, the United states Conference of Mayors, and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices; and funding media coverage of education.

The third approach examines large private foundations as peculiar and problematic institutions in a democracy. This approach considers big philanthropy in general and uses ed reform as one example of how mega-foundations undermine democratic governance and civil society. The objections to wealthy private corporations dedicated to doing good (as they see it) have remained the same since the early twentieth-century when the first mega-foundations were created: they intervene in public life but aren’t accountable to the public; they are privately governed but publicly subsidized by being tax exempt; and in a country where money translates into political power, they reinforce the problem of plutocracy—the exercise of power derived from wealth.

Of course, all three approaches to criticizing big philanthropy can be part of the same discussion, but the distinctions help to create a more coherent point of view. They make answering the inevitable challenges easier. Here are some of those challenges and possible responses. Not everyone will agree with the responses. Consider them feasible options.

Challenge: You seem to believe that ed-reform philanthropy is some sort of nefarious conspiracy. Here we go again with conspiracy theories.

Response: By definition conspiracies are secret and illegal. The ed-reform movement isn’t a conspiracy. When people or organizations work together politically in a democracy, it’s a coalition or movement. This is true even when—as is the case with the ed-reform movement—huge amounts of money are being spent by mega-foundations and private meetings take place.

Challenge: You wrongly depict the ed-reform movement and the foundations involved as homogeneous with everyone marching in lockstep. The movement is actually very heterogeneous and rife with disagreements.

Response: Coalitions and movements are rarely, if ever, completely homogeneous. Yet their members agree generally on basic principles and goals. That’s how they make progress. The ed-reform movement is no different. The most significant policy difference among ed-reform foundations is on vouchers – the per-pupil funding that parents can move from a district public school to a private school, often including religious schools. Some foundations, for example, Walton, support vouchers; others, for example, Gates and Broad, do not.

Challenge: You constantly impugn the motives of the mega-foundations. Do you really think Melinda Gates or Eli Broad wants to hurt children?

Response: Of course, the philanthropists aim to do good, but they define “good.” It makes no sense to question their motives. The directors of the Walton Foundation believe that school vouchers will improve education. By supporting vouchers, they believe they are doing good. But when philanthropists enter the public policy fray, they—like everyone else—legitimately become fair game for criticism of their positions and activity. Tax-exemptions shouldn’t create sacred cows.

Challenge: Private foundations spend perhaps $1.5 or $2 billion annually on K-12 education in the United States. That’s minuscule compared to the more than $525 billion that government spends every year. You exaggerate the influence that private foundations exert with their drop-in-the-bucket donations.

Response: Government spending on public education goes to basic and fixed expenses. Most states and urban school districts can’t cover their costs—they run deficits and/or cut outlays. Sociologists have shown that discretionary spending—spending beyond what covers ordinary running costs—is where policy is shaped and changed. The mega-foundations use their grants as leverage: they give money to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations’ pet policies. Resource-starved states and school districts feel compelled to say yes to millions of dollars even when many strings are attached or they consider the policies unwise.

Challenge: Private foundations don’t weaken democracy. They add another voice to the democratic debate. This increases pluralism and actually strengthens democracy.

Response: Money translates too easily into political power in the United States, and the country is becoming increasingly plutocratic. Mega-foundations exacerbate this tendency. In the realm of public education policy, they have too much influence, and this undermines democracy.

Joanne Barkan’s writing on philanthropy, private foundations, and public education reform has appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly, the Washington Post, Dissent magazine, and other publications.

This article was originally published on Diane Ravitch’s blog

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