Opinion
January 15, 2016

Foundation Influence in Education Policy Deserves Greater Scrutiny

Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic

The "muscular philanthropy" of education donors like Eli Broad deserves more attention and scrutiny, say the authors of new book on grants to improve the schools.

Philanthropy today plays an outsized role in schooling and the efforts to improve America’s education system. Indeed, one can say that, in ways good and bad, the story of 21st-century school reform is in many ways a tale of education giving.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pushed hotly debated reforms like Common Core and test-linked teacher evaluation. The Walton Family Foundation has been a crucial force in supporting the growth of charter schools. A leaked memo from the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation suggesting that Los Angeles needs many more charter schools was enough to convulse that city’s politics. The experiences of Facebook’s co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in giving $100 million to Newark, N.J., attracted national attention — and the critiques of his work clearly influenced the plan he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced in December to devote 99 percent of his Facebook shares to good causes.

For all the commotion though, it’s striking how rarely the strategies, scope, and importance of education philanthropy are subjected to extended scrutiny and analysis. For all the ink devoted to high-profile foundation efforts, we know remarkably little about the patterns of giving and the accomplishments of these grant makers, and even less about how the patterns are changing.

To try to shed light on those patterns, we assembled a group of experts to contribute to our book, The New Education Philanthropy.

Just 15 years ago, there were concerns that the nation’s grant makers were retreating from elementary and secondary education. The $500 million Annenberg Challenge petered out on a disappointing note and major foundations were expressing second thoughts about whether their investments in elementary and secondary education were a good use of funds. Since then, philanthropy has roared back with a vengeance.

Grant makers have become more intentional in their strategies, more attentive to politics, more focused on metrics of success, and more aggressive about changing policy. While an earlier generation of donors chalked up failures to problems of implementation or program design, the new philanthropists tend to blame policy, system inertia, and a lack of political willpower.

Philanthropists have given prominence to ideas that the administration might otherwise not have entertained, given funds to support a small set of ideas, and perhaps even created a false confidence about how ready their proposals were for prime-time. In short, over the past 15 years, philanthropists have gone from having one foot out the door in elementary and second education to having a stake in nearly every step of policy and advocacy. Contributors to our book document findings like these:

  • Foundations have worked closely with government, pooling resources and sharing personnel through a revolving door.
  • n Their tactics have borne fruit in specific areas, such as supporting a remarkable expansion of charter schools.

  • Grant makers aren’t very savvy about the limits of their own knowledge, or their ability to mobilize and sustain support.
  • Foundations underestimate the role that teachers play as sources of expertise and "classroom gatekeepers," and how this contributes to the disappointing track record of so much philanthropy
  • Backlash has grown significantly — there were 15 times more "extremely negative" articles about the Gates, Broad, Walton, and Arnold Foundations in 2013 than in 2000 — although the share of critical articles is still well under 10 percent.

What should we make of all this? Amid the fragmentation, bureaucracy, and deep-set routines of American education, this kind of giving can prove a valuable catalyst. Muscular philanthropy like the kind we see from Gates, Broad, and other foundations is identifying and supporting promising individuals and ideas that may be an uncomfortable fit for education bureaucracies and routines. Such giving can light the way forward, especially as long as other donors provide a balancing wheel that can counter fads and group-think.

At the same time, this kind of giving also poses important questions about who gets to influence public decisions and how they should do so. We’ve always been a Tocquevillian nation, where progress springs not from the genius of central planners but from the pushing and shoving of a hearty mix of self-interested actors. But on both the political left and right, some have come to see muscular philanthropy as the bully on the beach. The scholar Diane Ravitch has warned about the disproportionate and unchecked power of what she calls the "billionaire boys club," while The Federalist’s Joy Pullmann worries that philanthropists are "colluding" with political and business leaders behind closed doors and "literally writing policy."

Foundations shrug off such criticisms, confident that their own intentions are honorable and suspicious that naysayers are fighting to preserve a dysfunctional status quo. Foundations that wade into policy and advocacy, however, have a responsibility to embrace criticism more openly. After all, choosing to give funds in a way that changes policies for millions of children and communities is different from underwriting a mentoring program. High-leverage giving can be wholly appropriate and healthy for students, schools, and communities, but it does bring with it a new level of civic responsibility.

Most of the leading donors make a pretty sincere effort at self-appraisal. They evaluate grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene groups to offer feedback on their giving — and they deserve kudos on this front.

However, the groups and individuals tapped by foundations for their insight and feedback tend to include, naturally enough, friends, allies, and grantees. These aren’t the people most likely to challenge comfortable assumptions, especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend benefactors. Robust public discussions, not private conversations, are the most effective forum for bringing overlooked challenges to the surface, forcing difficult issues to the fore, or understanding how others may see an issue through an entirely different lens.

In the absence of vigorous public debate, a vacuum emerges that gets filled by incendiary voices and marginal figures with ideological agendas and nothing to lose.

It’s time to remember too that, as with all philanthropy, what matters most is what donors do, how they do it, and the context in which they operate. It matters whether philanthropy enriches or short-circuits democratic decision-making and whether it stymies or sparks creative problem-solving. And the answers to those questions are not immediately obvious or clear-cut, however much we might wish them to be.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Jenn Hatfield is a research assistant. Jeffrey R. Henig is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Mr. Hess and Mr. Henig are editors of the just-published book The New Education Philanthropy (Harvard Education Press).