Q&A: Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 21, 2016.
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Private foundations give millions of dollars to public education every year, but these powerful institutions typically operate behind a curtain of secrecy. In a new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, University of Michigan public policy professor Megan Tompkins-Stange sheds new light on the role philanthropy plays in public education, particularly in the arena of charter schools and other market-based reforms. 

Tompkins-Stange spent five years conducting confidential interviews with foundation insiders at the Ford Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Analyzing their diverse, and sometimes competing, approaches to grant-giving, she raises important questions about the influence that philanthropic interests wield in American education and public life. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

Rachel Cohen: You chose to dive into a controversial topic—education reform. What kind of feedback has your book received?

Megan Tompkins-Stange: Honestly I was really scared building up to the book’s release date, especially since I am a junior scholar. For months I was like, what am I doing? Why did I decide to do this? I was terrified. But honestly, most of the response to the book has been really supportive and positive, including from the foundations. I still haven’t heard anything from the Broad Foundation, but I’ve also heard from retired teachers, and people who experienced some of the politics first-hand.

One major critique I’ve received is that I’m not vocal enough about whether philanthropic giving is good or bad. But I did this intentionally—I wanted it to be accepted as an academic and empirical book, as opposed to a piece of advocacy. I’ve taken a more critical stance in the press though, I’m now more comfortable to do so.

Your book talks about the secrecy of foundations. Can you say more?

Foundations are private nonprofit corporations. There’s very little they have to do in order to be accountable to the public. They publish their tax forms, they have their 990s. They’ve established some professional norms over the past 50 years, so many will publish their grants in a database, or put out annual reports. That’s more just good practice, though. Foundations don’t have boards that are democratically accountable, and they are very private by nature of their organizational form. They don’t have to talk to anyone.

Of course, the argument that comes up again and again is, well is that a good thing? That’s a debate that’s gone on for many years. My position is that foundations need to be much more legally accountable. They have enough power in the public realm that they need to be held to some accountability procedures beyond the ones they institute on their own. That could be a formal mechanism, or creating space for people to weigh in on efforts they’re pushing that will impact the public at large. They could have boards with some kind of public member component, or make some investments subject to an external review.

People often lump the Gates and Broad Foundations together, but you explore some differences between these two education reform-friendly foundations.

Eli Broad is the only person to have founded two Fortune 500 companies, and part of his theory of change is about getting the right people into the right positions. So Broad focuses on pipelines: training superintendents, creating leadership positions for individuals to then shape school districts. He very intentionally talks about “venture philanthropy” and having “dramatic results” and creating “transformative breakthroughs.” The Broad Foundation moves unapologetically with urgency; that is their core value.

Gates is a little more skittish about where the public stands on them, they’re more careful. They have legions of lawyers who work to make sure their advocacy doesn’t cross any line. The Gates Foundation also has a sense of urgency, but they’ve always been a bit more cautious. Some people say this may be due to some things Microsoft went through with antitrust—Bill Gates has always just been much more public and attracts more criticism and critique than Eli Broad.

Many supporters of the Common Core insist that the standards originated from the states, not the federal government. Your book recounts the many ways in which they were actually pushed forward by the Gates Foundation, on both the state and the federal level.

Gates was very much about building up the power at the state and local level, and then bringing in the federal government. That was their strategy, and the main way they did that was by getting all the governors on board in ’08 and ’09. Gates made huge grants to The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association designed to build political will.

The grants were basically for instituting standards, educating the public, and research. It was all very above-board, but they really played that convener role to get everyone on the same page. Their strategy was to give money to elites to move the effort efficiently and quickly.

HistPhil, a blog about the history of philanthropy, hosts debates about what’s changed in the modern landscape of philanthropic giving. Your book describes some shifts in education philanthropy over the past few decades. What do you think has changed?

HistPhil is such a valuable website, I really appreciate the role that they’ve taken in advancing the conversation and bringing it back to history. There’s a tendency in political discussions about philanthropy to argue that today is the biggest it’s ever been. The truth is that foundations have been really powerful for more than a century; if you look back at some of the press from the 1920s and 1930s, there are very similar arguments being made about the influence of the Rockefellers.

All that’s old is new again. I think that what’s changed is that people today are more concerned about the size of foundations. It’s the first time in many decades we’ve seen foundations that are in excess of a billion dollars, and the growth of their assets has also grown significantly. The presence of market-based values and the influences of neoliberalism over the past 30 years is a big deal, too. People tend to get hyperbolic because there are wealthy people in tech and business who are more assertive in ways that foundations haven’t been in the past.

Your book suggests “evidenced-based” policies are often far less rigorous, and far more political, than their proponents suggest.

Right, what is evidence? I’m working on a book proposal now with [political scientist] Sarah Reckhow about teacher quality debates. We look at the new industry of advocacy research, and its influence on policy discussions. So many ideological arguments have the veneer of neutrality confirmed by the label “evidenced-based.”

We’re in the midst of a presidential election that actually has a significant focus on philanthropy. Both Clinton and Trump have foundations, and particularly the Clinton Foundation’s influence is regularly in the media. Do you see this having any import for the education philanthropy conversation?

It’s an interesting question because the broad public doesn’t really know what a foundation is, or what it does. Clinton’s foundation doesn’t make that many grants, it’s more like brokering and convening. I teach a class on philanthropy and I start by asking my class “what is the foundation you most admire?” Students will say things like the Salvation Army. Most people really conflate foundations and public charities, and there’s not a real understanding of who gives the money and who does the work on the ground. There’s a real lack of knowledge about what power these different groups have, which also carries implications for our democracy.

The national conversation around inequality has grown far more pronounced. Has this impacted the public’s focus on philanthropy?

That was fascinating for me. Literally I kept having to add things to the book as we were going to press. ESSA passed, Bernie Sanders became a real viable candidate. I think people are starting to realize that philanthropy is inextricably linked to an unequal society. You can’t have philanthropy without having some people who have a lot more than others.

 

 

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