The Billionaire Boys Keep On Experimenting, Charterizing, and Limiting Democracy

Until Diane Ravitch published her 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we didn’t really have a name for the major transformation in the size and practice of venture philanthropy.  Ravitch describes “the Billionaire Boys Club” to explain a new trend in gigantic philanthropy in our age of the plutocrats, fortunes being used to transform society, and in particular the public schools, in ways citizens cannot really control.

Ravitch worries about the abrogation of democracy as philanthropies with enormous fortunes manipulate public policy privately, accountable only to their own carefully chosen boards of trustees: “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 have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan, who has written extensively about mega-philanthropy, points out that because gifts to non-profit foundations are not taxed, foundations are making influential investments for which they can take credit, but they are doing so at public expense: “Although this plutocratic sector is privately governed, it is publicly subsidized.  Private foundations fall into the IRS’s wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational,  religious, scientific, literary, and other groups.  When the creator of a mega-foundation says, ‘I can do what I want because it’s my money,’ he or she is wrong.  A substantial portion of the wealth—35 percent or more, depending on tax rates—has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.”  Writing in the NY Times recently about the philanthropies spun from the tech industries, Alessandra Stanley adds: “Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else—and in many ways it is.  But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors.  They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Barkan reminds us that philanthropy has changed significantly in the past two decades through a transformation in the role of grantor and grantee:  “Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing non-profits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this mark a a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

It has been five years since Diane Ravitch introduced the Billionaire Boys—the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate of mega-philanthropies engaged in disrupting the workings of the institution of public education. In her book Ravitch describes Gates’ already abandoned project to break up large high schools into small schools.  She recounts the story of the Walton Foundation’s huge investment in school choice and the proliferation of charter schools.  And she tells readers about the Broad Foundation’s investment in training school leaders in business practices including test-based accountability and merit pay for teachers.  She describes the infusion of Gates “solutions” into Arne Duncan’s Department of Education with the hiring of Joanne Weiss and Jim Shelton, and the impact of Gates-Broad-Walton policies on New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  Let’s look at what the Billionaire Boys are doing today.

THE BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION—We can begin with the Gates Foundation’s $100 million grant—to be matched by the school district— to the Hillsborough County Schools (Greater Tampa, Florida) for a massive experiment in a new plan for evaluating teachers and then incentivizing teachers with merit pay.  Gates has now given up on the idea and moved on. Foundations can abandon an initiative that doesn’t seem to be working without having to worry about any wreckage their exit leaves behind.  But today there are serious consequences in Hillsborough County.

According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave.  Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations.  A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year.  The total scores now factor into teacher pay.”  Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools.  More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts.  Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself has spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times  wonders, “The achievement gap affecting poor and minority students still exists even as test scores on the whole are on the rise and as more students take advanced courses.  What’s been going on for the last six years?  What have these hundreds of millions of dollars bought beyond higher salaries and consultants?”  (This blog recently covered the education policies of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here.  For an excellent summary of the Tampa debacle, see Valerie Strauss’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates Spent a Fortune to Build It. Now a Florida School System is Getting Rid of It.)

ELI AND EDYTHE BROAD FOUNDATION—In a brand new project, described in an internal document obtained by the Los Angeles Times at the end of September, the Broad Foundation apparently views itself as the catalyst for charterizing half of the Los Angeles Unified District in California.  Here is how Howard Blume, the newspaper’s excellent education reporter, describes what he learned from the document: “According to a 44-page memo, obtained by The Times, the locally based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other charter advocates want to create 260 new charter schools, enrolling at least 130,000 students.  Organizers of the effort have declined to publicly release details of the plan.  But the memo lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers…. The document cites numerous foundations and individuals who could be tapped for funding.  In addition to the Broad Foundation, the list includes the Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett foundations.  Among the billionaires cited as potential donors are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major producers of mandarin oranges, pistachios and pomegranates; Irving Co. head Donald Bren; entertainment mogul David Geffen; and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.”  Blume adds that Los Angeles has more charter schools already than any other school district in the United States.  Charters currently enroll 16 percent of the school district’s students.  While the Broad Foundation has said it’s proposal remains in the planning stage, the Foundation has appointed Paul Pastorek, who helped oversee the charterization of the New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina “to lead the group’s efforts to expand charter schools in Los Angeles Unified.”

Only last week the Washington Post described another recent Broad Foundation initiative: funding education reporting at the Los Angeles Times.  The new project called “Education Matters” is being funded by the K & F Baxter Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  Paul Farhi, the Washington Post reporter, adds: “The Broad Foundation’s chairman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, has repeatedly expressed his interest in buying the Times.  The newspaper’s owner, Tribune Publishing, has rejected his offers, reportedly including one this month.” Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume has striven to remain independent by explicitly mentioning Broad Funding for the newspaper’s new education project in his reports.  Neither has his reporting skewed to favor Broad Foundation initiatives; he is the reporter who surfaced  Broad’s new plan radically to expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION—On Monday, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss called our attention to a recent report on a “new direction” being set by the third of the Billionaire Boys.  Strauss reminds us that, “The Walton Foundation is one of the biggest players in the education philanthropy world, having poured some $1.3 billion in K-12 education over the last two decades largely to support charter schools and fuel the ‘school choice’ movement.  But foundation honchos aren’t exactly satisfied with the the results of their work and now they are using a new investment strategy to make a broader impact…  Choice isn’t enough.  So what is?  Apparently dismantling traditional public school systems and creating collections of charter schools across cities.”  The report itself explains, “There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a ‘Portfolio Strategy’—a concept researched and supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Portfolio strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public (including charter) schools.  These systems prioritize school autonomy, parental empowerment, and system leader oversight and responsibility for accountability.”  (It should be noted that the Center on Reinventing Public Education—with its strategy of “portfolio school reform,” was launched with money from that other Billionaire Boy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Here is how the new report on the Walton Family Foundation describes the Foundation’s priorities for the future: “While choice remains the Foundation’s cornerstone approach to grant making, it acknowledges that there are certain additional conditions and mechanisms necessary for its successful implementation.  The Foundation has identified what it calls ‘choice enablers’—other conditions or supports necessary for choice—including open enrollment platforms, portable and weighted student-funding, and the provision of more readily accessible real-time data on schools for parents.”  The strategic plan acknowledges that its efforts to now have been top down, and there are plans to build better parent and community engagement, though as Valerie Strauss points out, “After 20 years, the foundation realizes that its top-down approach doesn’t adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups and community groups.  Now it wants to engage local partners and communities—not, apparently, to ask what they actually want in their communities but to build ‘a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on'”—the work that Walton plans to impose according to its theory of school choice.

Joanne Barkan’s prophetic article summarizes pretty well what’s happening with the Billionaire Boys these days: “Have the voices of ‘stakeholders’—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened?  Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased?  Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled?  Are politicians more or less responsive to them?  Is the press more or less free to inform them?  According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.”