Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people;  when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review as a public agency should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”

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