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The 1% and Education Policy

December 29, 2011

Look, it’s no secret that an elite club of education dilettantes philanthropists have been throwing money at various educational causes for a good while, and that this spending has picked up markedly in the last few years.  Diane Ravitch calls them the “Billionaires’ Boys Club” (h/t Sara Goldrick Rab); others such as Joanne Barkan refer to the “Big Three” (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Eli Broad).  For another good overview of the state of affairs, check out this New Yorker piece by Matthew McKnight and the aforementioned post by Sara Goldrick Rab on the Education Optimists blog.

So, OK.  There are a lot of people out there that have no problem with the literally hundreds of millions, and possibly billions, of private dollars flowing into public education.  Mayor Dean certainly doesn’t.  Charter schools and charter networks like KIPP certainly don’t.  Michelle Rhee definitely has no problem with it.

Me?  I’m not sure I like it.

I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with all that private money flowing into public schools and public school systems, even quasi-public schools like charter schools, because if there’s anything the relationship between the federal government and state governments has shown us, it’s that money always comes with strings attached.  Always.  And I know there’s at least one guy in Nashville who’ll back me up on this.

That’s why this news is both disheartening and not all that surprising:

The Gates Foundation just made a sizable grant to the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC). 

Whatever your politics (and understand that ALEC is responsible for writing/providing the blueprint for some very controversial state legislation, from the Arizona immigration law to voter ID laws to so-called “long-form birth certificate” laws), this is a direct indication that the Gates Foundation has specific legislative priorities, and is not just a disinterested funder of worthy causes, looking to support research and best efforts in education.

Maybe the Gates Foundation never pretended to the the latter, but I don’t know.  This just seems like a bridge too far.

Edit, 9:18 a.m.: Fixed Joanne Barkan’s name (thank you Dianne Ravitch for pointing out the mistake).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2011 2:25 pm

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on “Me, I’m not sure I like it.”

    Is it just the aspect of private philanthropists trying to influence legislation that bothers you?

    Of course, any radical leaning (left or right) private philanthropist influencing public education should provide a lot of cause for concern. However, I think that private dollars flowing into public education provides a much greater good than not.

    Here are some reasons why, and some of the reasons are related/flow together.

    1. Private philanthropy, even if in the billions (low single digits) per year, still dwarfs in comparison to what we spend in total public dollars across America in K12 education. The private dollars, being a small part, can supplement certain target areas of need or focus that may not otherwise be served in local districts. The first-generation college students who were able to attend a KIPP charter school or a middle income student who benefits from an excellent leader at the district thanks to Broad’s human capital program — would those things happen without the extra private dollars? Joel Klein calls philanthropy money the R&D money:

    Klein has a point. I think we can all agree there are many school systems and schools FAR from perfect in delivering an excellent education to every student – so we need innovation and re-working of schools or systems in certain places. To be able to do that, private philanthropists provide the resources to do so.

    2. Private philanthropists have a choice how to spend their extra money. It’s an obvious point, and one meant sincerely – if we start trying to limit how private individuals or foundations spend their money – then on the same principle dog lovers should not be able to give to local humane shelters or conservationists should not be permitted to give to National Parks. The point is – there will always be critics of how wealthy private individuals spend their money for whatever the cause is, someone will always take the other side. I think we need to weigh if their donations and capital allocations are making significant impacts for the social or greater good of their communities (to which I believe the educational philanthropists are doing).

    3. I struggle with the egalitarian point I assume you’re making with the reference to Occupy Wall St. I would be curious to walk down to Legislative Plaza, or War Memorial Plaza, and do some research to survey all Occupiers to find the median donation to school support organizations (schools PTAs, Metro Schools, Pencil Foundation, Alignment Nashville, etc.). I’d also like to see what percent of their income this comes to in supporting public schools. I hope it’s more. But my guess is that there are a lot of people in the 99% who don’t give anything, even though they could give $50, $100 or $500 a year and still be just fine. Arguably, these 99% individuals have a greater vested interest in high-quality public schools, more so than wealthy philanthropists who probably send their kids to private schools (and their social network peers send their kids to private schools too).

    4. Based on some of the previous points – if private philanthropists are spending money to influence legislation, I am actually ok with it as long as the legislation is promoting real improvements for student learning and success. Again, so many of our $$$s flowing into public schools are wasted on really unproductive expenditures. If private philanthropists are able to exert influence in a timely fashion to help improve the effectiveness of public dollars, I am all for it. I am a middle class public schools taxpayer. I frankly don’t want to pay any more in taxes for public schools that don’t do that great a job on average for the students in Nashville (it’s getting better). I want the public schools to be better for my kids. I don’t have the money or influence to get that to happen sooner rather than later, so again, I’m ok with private philanthropy trying to do so.

    And I’ll close with what I said at the beginning – of course, any radical leaning (left or right) private philanthropist influencing public education should provide a lot of cause for concern. I do think we could throw out the baby with the bath water if we’re giving serious consideration to outlawing or restricting private philanthropy flowing into public education.

  2. Anne-Marie permalink
    December 29, 2011 3:16 pm

    There are a lot of people in Nashville who will back you up on this. This money is not simply being used to supplement what public dollars are not able to provide. It is being used to restructure public education in a way that has nothing to do with the wishes of parents, teachers, or community members, whose input is not sought. Further, there are significant economic benefits to donors that accrue from these investments, and we should be careful to distinguish what is self-serving from what is genuine.

    As a public school parent, the degree of influence the Gates Foundation has had on education in Tennessee alarms me. We’ve even heard Bill Gates himself cited as an education authority in testimony before the legislature, which makes no sense. Public schools are not “public” simply because they don’t charge tuition. They are public because they are governed by the democratic process and, ideally, responsive to the desires of the community. When huge amounts of cash are given or withheld by these foundations, the school system becomes accountable to the people holding the money, rather than the parent or community member calling their school board member. I fear we are increasingly putting education policy decisions in the hands of people who don’t have expertise, but whose outsized wealth gives them a louder voice than others.

  3. December 29, 2011 9:12 pm

    I wrote about this back in April (here) when I voiced concern about Jay Steele and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s meddling in school programs. Steele, of course, is the brilliant mind behind selling naming rights to academic programs in our public schools.

    Forgive me for being a little suspicious when our Corporate Overlords take an interest in our community’s children.

  4. tim-10-ber permalink
    December 29, 2011 9:45 pm

    The question to be asked should be are public schools truly accomplishing their mission which is to educate…educate all students to the highest potential. Ooops…maybe that is my mission for the pubic schools…I am for whatever will revitalize a failing system…failing for those that do not have options, do not have support at home and continually get promoted when they have not mastered the subject matter at hand…public education is still focused on the adult…whenever they truly focus on the children then we can have a real conversation…

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