Today’s Philanthropy: Giving Back While Perpetuating Inequality and the Power of Big Money

Although he died in 2006, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, longtime pastor of New York’s Riverside Church and a lifetime advocate for justice, speaks to our times: “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo….”

Coffin continues: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’) we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it.”  Charity “is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.”

The meaning of these words is echoed in Anand Giridharadas’s recent NY Times column, written to promote Giridharadas’s new book, being released today.  Giridharadas has studied the role of philanthropy from the inside as a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Here is his critique: “At first you think: Rich people making a difference—so generous! Until you consider that America might not be in the fix it’s in had we not fallen for the kind of change these winners have been selling…. Of course, world-changing initiatives funded by the winners of market capitalism do heal the sick, enrich the poor and save lives. But even as they give back, American elites generally seek to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix—and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off.”

Giridharadas continues: “What their ‘change’ leaves undisturbed is our winners-take-all economy, which siphons the gains from progress upward. The average pretax income of America’s top 1 percent has more than tripled since 1980, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold, even as the average income of the bottom half of Americans stagnated around $16,000, adjusted for inflation, according to a paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”

In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines Giridharadas’s new book and several others written to examine the social and political impact of the rapid expansion and power of philanthropy: “We live, it is often said, in a new Gilded Age—an era of extravagant wealth and almost as extravagant displays of generosity. In the past fifteen years, some thirty thousand private foundations have been created, and the number of donor-advised funds has roughly doubled.”  Kolbert quotes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, challenging today’s philanthropists “to openly acknowledge and confront the tension inherent in a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system.”

One problem is that an increasing amount of wealth is untaxed and, therefore, unavailable to public projects to benefit us all. The other side of that problem is that philanthropists themselves are defining the way problems should be solved, making grants that fulfill their specific priorities, and increasingly pushing the edges of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to promote their own public policy priorities—by funding the think-tank research that drives the grants they make, paying for the promotion of their ideas, and skirting the limits on direct policy advocacy by philanthropic foundations. Kolbert explains: “The result is doubly undemocratic. For every billion dollars spent on advocacy tricked out as philanthropy, several hundred million dollars in uncaptured taxes are lost to the federal treasury… In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the federal government at least fifty billion dollars.”

So… how has all this affected trends in public education policy? Especially during Arne Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary, after he hired five former Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation staff people for key Department positions, his Department’s policy was directly shaped by priorities of the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies that share Gates’ goals. The very best investigation of the impact of philanthropy on public education policy is Joanne Barkan’s Got Dough? Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy, published by Dissent in 2011.

Barkan begins: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out.  A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.”

Barkan identifies the particular projects which are the priorities of the Big Three in education—Gates, Broad, and Walton—working in sync: “Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.  Other foundations—Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few—often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement’s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.”  Barkan has continued to track this issue; here is a 2014 update.

Barkan’s work focuses on the power of philanthropy driving education policy. It is important that Giridharadas and others are investigating more broadly how our society is being shaped by the growing concentration and power of money—along with tax policies that increasingly allow our wealthiest citizens to invest in their pet causes (and ideologically driven policies) instead of paying what ought to be their fair share of taxes.  As William Sloane Coffin challenges, “One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition. Thus it is that private property in America has come to be considered all but sacred. Obviously this makes its redistribution difficult, even through taxation.”

Quotes from William Sloane Coffin are from Credo, pp. 60-64).

In Penetrating Analysis, Joanne Barkan Predicts Likely Direction of a DeVos Education Department

Joanne Barkan has published another of her remarkably lucid and well-written articles at Dissent, this time a profile of Betsy DeVos.  Barkan explicitly predicts how DeVos, if she is confirmed as Secretary of Education, will set out to accomplish her stated goal of using the power of the U.S. Department of Education to expand education privatization.

Barkan spreads the blame for what has already been greatly expanded privatization far beyond the work of right-wing ideologues: “When did Americans stop talking about public K-12 education as the keystone of a strong democracy, as the incubator for citizenship, shared values, and social cohesion in a diverse nation, as the only educational institution obligated to serve every child who appears on the doorstep?  Conservatives don’t bear sole responsibility for changing the conversation. The Clinton and Obama administrations reduced K-12 education to little more than the required stepping stone to a college degree that leads to successful competition in the global economy. That’s a meager sales pitch, making it all too easy for K-12 schooling to be chopped up into products sold on the market.”

Barkan does distinguish Betsy DeVos, however, from recent administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that have made privatization-lite more palatable through their rhetoric that redefined the schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods as “failing.” All recent administrations have also embraced charter schools as escapes for a few children from so-called ‘failing’ public schools instead of demanding the investments sufficient to make the public system work in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.

Compared to any recent education leader Betsy DeVos is an extremist: “Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market, died in 2006, but his ideas about public education live on in the thought and deeds of Betsy DeVos, likely the next U.S. Secretary of Education… In 1996, Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also an economist) launched the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as ‘the nation’s only organization solely dedicated to promoting their concept of educational choice.’  ‘Choice’ is the ed-reform movement’s euphemism for privatization. All the tools used to create choice—vouchers, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, tax credits for individuals and businesses that create private school scholarships, ‘education savings accounts’ (usually government-funded debit cards used for various private-school expenses, not just tuition—siphon tax dollars out of the public school system and into private hands.  DeVos has worked with and donated to the Friedman Foundation, recently renamed EdChoice.”

Barkan lists the pro-privatization think tanks and organizations, in addition to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, supported by Betsy DeVos: “For almost twenty-five years, Betsy DeVos has arguably been the most dogged political operative in the movement to privatize public education. Under the banner of choice, she founded, funded, and/or led a mind-numbing list of organizations: the American Federation for Children, Alliance for School Choice, Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s operation), All Children Matter, American Education Reform Council, Children First America, Education Freedom Fund, and Great Lakes Education Project.”

Predicting that Betsy Devos will be “indefatigable—and iron-willed,” Barkan suggests that DeVos will, like Arne Duncan before her, use federal grants as incentives to states to adopt particular policies that are set by the Department of Education as conditions to qualify for federal funding. Barkan reminds us that under Arne Duncan and in exchange for federal money, states agreed to rigid “school turnaround” plans that closed and privatized schools, fired teachers and evaluated teachers by students’ test scores. “DeVos has the opportunity to achieve the same kind of breakthrough for vouchers. Many Americans oppose vouchers knowing that they transfer taxpayer money to private and religious schools to the detriment of the public system. But DeVos doesn’t need to convince the public; she needs to convince state legislators and governors. Right now, Republicans control thirty-three governorships and both chambers of the legislatures in thirty-two states. They will be her greatest asset. Moreover, DeVos’s job will be easier today than it would have been six or seven years ago because ed reformers have made headway in substituting the appealing word ‘choice’ for vouchers and privatization.”

Barkan views the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), created by Bill Clinton in 1994, and since then condemned by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General in a series of biennial reports for poor record keeping and lax oversight, as the model DeVos will copy for promoting additional federal privatization efforts: “The CSP makes three-year grants available to states on a competitive basis for the purpose of opening or expanding charter schools according to each state’s existing laws. Thus the program subsidizes charter expansion without micromanaging policy… For strategically thinking privatizers, the beauty of the CSP is that it avoids the curse of federal overreach. Relatively small, out of the national limelight, it has steadily increased the scope of charter schools without producing much of a backlash.”

When Congress passed the December 2015, reauthorization of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Republican majority prohibited some of the federal Department of Education’s power to incentivize states to adopt federal programs, as a protest to what many Republicans perceived as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s overreach. Some of those constraints are likely to be removed, however, by an all-Republican Congress and a President Trump promoting their own priorities. A bigger question is where the money would come from for the federal privatization block grants Trump and DeVos are known to support.  The only two large funding streams through the U.S. Department of Education are for Title I (to support schools serving poor children) and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both programs already suffer from long-term under-funding.

Barkan closes her article by challenging American citizens to be active stakeholders in public education: “The only counterweight to ‘choice’ is excellent public schools, and so the only way to save public education (which is largely very good in the United States) is to improve it where it needs improvement. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers and administrators commit themselves to the task everyday. The job also belongs to everyone who sees the need to rebuild American democracy. In the face of privatization, we are all stakeholders in the public good that is public education.”

Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

In her annual letter summing up the year’s accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, offers a sort of mea culpa to explain what has happened in the organization’s philanthropy in education. Gates has been at the forefront of strategic philanthropy, by which a foundation sets the priorities and tries to accomplish particular reforms its chosen “experts” have identified.

Here is what Desmond-Hellmann confesses, specifically regarding the Foundation’s push for the Common Core Standards: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.  We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning… This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.  The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  Desmond-Hellman also explains that the Gates Foundation is committed to evidence-based experimentation: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence.”

Desmond-Hellmann doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of the foundation’s strategy, merely that the Foundation missed engaging all the stakeholders.  And she seems to assume that a sort of apology will cover any worry about the collateral damage inflicted by mega-experiments, most particularly the experiments that were abandoned.

The Los Angeles Times, responded to Desmond-Hellman and the Gates Foundation in a stunning and scathing editorial about the damage inflicted.  The newspaper’s editors recount the history of Gates’ experimentation in education:

  • “The Gates Foundation’s first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates’ conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size… The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn’t make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.”
  • “Then the foundation set its sights on improving teaching, specifically through evaluating and rewarding good teaching… In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%…  (T)he Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools.  The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.”
  • More recently the foundation has been investing in the development and implementationof the Common Core Standards, the subject of last week’s sober explanation of problems in what Desmond-Hellmann says was the roll out.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board concludes: “(T)he Gates Foundation has spent so much money—more than $3 billion since 1999—that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy… Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.  The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

In a recent column on the impact of Gates’ investment in the promotion of charter schools in the state of Washington, Joanne Barkan reflects further: “Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work.  He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.  His entree into policy-making is money, not expertise.”

And Diane Ravitch, who identified the work of the Billionaire Boys in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is just being republished in a revised edition), defines the problem of large-scale, money-driven experimentation on America’s school districts and 50 million children: “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 would be.  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.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan quotes Bill Gates from an interview in May 2015, when he discussed the challenges democracy poses for his foundation: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.” “We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.” “It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”

Joanne Barkan Describes Bill Gates and the “Nuisance of Democracy”

Please do read Joanne Barkan’s fascinating and carefully written new piece in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Charitable Plutocacy: Bill Gates, Washington State, and the Nuisance of Democracy.

In the first place Barkan summarizes the history of the efforts by their proponents to launch charter schools in the state of Washington.  Twice this month, I’ve been part of conversations in which nobody knew whether charters are legal in Washington at this point, but it has been hard to find a coherent history of this effort that, according to Barkan stretches back more than 20 years.  Here is a summary of what Barkan tells us. 1995 — A bill is introduced and dies in the legislature. 1996 — A ballot issue is proposed and defeated 64 percent to 36 percent in the November election. House bills are introduced in 1997, 1998, and 1999 are all defeated in the state senate.  2000 — Ballot issue proposed; billionaire supporters outspend opponents 309-1, but charters are defeated on election day.  2004 — Washington legislature passes a bill authorizing charter schools, but the law is repealed by referendum by a large margin despite huge spending by billionaire charter supporters.  2012 — A charter school bill is introduced; the bill dies in committee when leadership in both houses of the legislature opposes it.  2012 — Wealthy charter school supporters launch another initiative campaign and invest millions to get it passed. (Barkan explains: “The vote on Washington’s Initiative 1240 stands out for this reason: despite outspending their opponents more than 12 to 1, the philanthropists barely eked out a victory. The final tally was 50.69 percent in favor, 49.31 percent opposed.”)  2014 — The first Washington charter school opens.  2015 (September 4) — Washington Supreme Court declares charters unconstitutional. (Barkan summarizes the court’s argument: “The state constitution stipulates that only common (public) schools can receive government funding, and all common schools in the state must be subject to local voter control.  Because charter schools are run by appointed boards or private organizations, they are not common schools and do not qualify for government funding.”)  March 2016 — The legislature passes a new bill that, in an attempt to satisfy the constitutional standard,  funds charter schools out of proceeds of the state lottery, not the state’s general fund.  Governor Jay Inslee allows the law to go into effect without his signature.

What I have left out in this summary is Barkan’s careful history of the growing impact over two decades of the money of billionaires who like the idea of having charter schools in the state of Washington. Most of this money comes from Bill Gates, but his partners along the way have included Paul G. Allen (another Microsoft founder), John T. Walton, Donald Fisher (The Gap), Alice Walton, Mike and Jackie Bezos (parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), Nicolas Hanauer, Katherine Binder, and Reed Hastings (Netflix), along with pro-charter national organizations such as Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters.  Barkan also names the organizations that have supported efforts to defeat charters in Washington: the teachers unions, the League of Women Voters, the Seattle NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, the Japanese American Citizens League Board, the Washington State PTA, the Association of Washington School Principals, district and county Democratic Party organizations, and the Washington State Labor Council.  It is a stunning contrast: plutocrats vs. the people of Washington.

Barkan isn’t alleging that the charitable foundations of wealthy individuals invested heavily in politics: “When philanthropists finance political campaigns, they act as individual citizens spending their personal wealth, not as the heads of tax-exempt, charitable foundations.  Federal and state laws bar private foundations from political activity.  Although the regulations have ambiguities and loopholes, high-profile philanthropists are usually careful….”

But huge fortunes yield enormous power today for America’s wealthiest citizens: “Today’s multi-billionaires are a different species of philanthropist; they keep tight control over their foundations while also operating as major political funders—think Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or Walmart heiress Alice Walton. They aim to do good in the world, but each defines ‘good’ idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals… Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny.” Twenty years of relentless investment by wealthy investors to promote charter schools in Washington state finally paid off.

Barkan describes a fascinating and troubling comment by Bill Gates in a panel discussion aired in 2015 by CNBC, in which Gates describes his frustration when democratic institutions that tolerate debate and difference of opinion have complicated the realization of his goals: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working… We’re not making as much progress as I’d like.  In fact, of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult…  It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system.  So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”

If you sometimes wonder how the national conversation about public education has tilted so sharply since 1995—away from the value of public schools that are owned and operated by the public and accountable to the public and lately focused on the merits of the introduction of competition from a charter school sector implemented by grant-funded social entrepreneurs—Barkan explains the role of today’s plutocrats: “The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to ‘disrupt’ and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K-12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results.  Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.”

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.”

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

Philanthropic Plutocrats Pushing the Levers and Pulling the Strings

Over the weekend, here and here,  this blog covered last week’s pieces by David Sirota, here and here, that exposed the $3.5 million grant the Public Broadcasting Service solicited from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to pay for a PBS series, The Pension Peril, that has been portraying the advocacy position of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that opposes public pensions.  PBS agreed to return the grant and put the series on hiatus when the conflict of interest was exposed.

It used to be that nonprofits brought ideas to foundations when they submitted proposals for funding.  These days it is far more common for the foundation to set an agenda and then seek organizations who can be granted funds to implement the foundation’s priorities.   Joanne Barkan describes the shift in grant making: “The roles of grantor and grantee have… changed.  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 nonprofits 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 marks a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

Over the weekend Connecticut blogger Jonathan Pelto explored another example connected to the Public Broadcasting Service and promotion of a foundation sponsor’s point of view in PBS programming.  Pelto points out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted $20.2 million to the Teaching Channel during the past three years, with the foundation serving as its primary funder.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a well-known funder of development and promotion of the Common Core Standards.  According to Pelto, “The Teaching Channel is one of the most vocal proponents of the Common Core Standards,” which it has been promoting in hour-long segments on PBS, “Teaching Channel Presents.”  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted to PBS affiliate WNET  $370.091 as a sponsor of “Teaching Channel Presents.”

Here is how political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the new trend in philanthropy. His example, a little dated now from his 2007 book Consumed, relates directly to charitable giving in New Orleans after the 2005, Hurricane Katrina:  “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself. .. The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy on the other hand empowers the public to take care of itself.” (p. 131)

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, agrees with Benjamin Barber:  “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’  It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

Examples from this past weekend illustrate that billionaire philanthropists have been spending not only on acts of charity but also on public policy projects, promoting their own “solutions” in many policy areas including public education.  But they do so without the accountability of democratic checks and balances.  They get to decide on their own whether their agenda will serve the public good.  While, of course, there is no absolute guarantee that democratic oversight of publicly owned institutions or democratically developed public policy will serve or protect the public good, at least as projects are undertaken on the part of the public, the pros and cons are publicly debated and public oversight ensures transparency.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch defines the danger of the new philanthropy:  “…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 would be.  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.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)