On New Philanthropy, Education Reform, and Eli Broad’s Big Plan for L.A. Schools

Originally published at The American Prospect on September 22, 2015.
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The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document yesterday, which seems to confirm earlier reports that the Broad Foundation wants at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students educated in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, 16 percent of students in L.A. Unified attend charters, and according to the report, getting to 50 percent would require creating 260 new schools, for 130,000 students, at a cost of $490 million.

“Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” the report stated. “Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”

Hmmm. That sounds familiar.

Earlier this month, veteran Washington Post journalist Dale Russakoff published a new book, The Prize, which explores education reform efforts in Newark from 2010-2015. Her book details the goals, mistakes, and challenges reformers encountered as they tried to “transform” Newark’s struggling school system—largely through expanding charters, closing “failing” schools, and implementing new teacher pay scales. The political drama and backroom dealings led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers humbling lessons to all those working to improve public education, no matter where one comes down on the policy specifics.

Like Eli Broad’s vision for Los Angeles, a key goal for Newark education reformers was to make the city a model for the rest of urban America. Booker wanted Newark to be transformed into “a hemisphere of hope” and repeatedly told Zuckerberg that their goal was not just to fix local education, but to develop the “high impact programs and best practices” that could fix education in all major cities. Booker believed that if he could succeed within a difficult district like Newark, then he could succeed anywhere. He emphasized that Zuckerberg’s investment could help lead to the “blueprint for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform its youth.”

This month, HistPhil, a blog that explores the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, has been running an excellent series on philanthropic involvement in education. Their effort is well timed: As billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform, the need to understand what’s historically new, and what’s not, is more important than ever.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, contributed to the HistPhil series by looking specifically at Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment in Newark. Reckhow notes that there exists a “perennial drive” for philanthropists to create national reform models. She points to the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program in the 1960s, an effort that philanthropists had hoped could serve as a national model for urban policy. “The fallacy of the national replication model—at the expense of truly listening and understanding local circumstances—is a lesson that philanthropists must relearn time and again,” Reckhow says.

Other cities experimenting with education reform are similarly interested in “scaling” their efforts. Many point to the academic gains seen in New Orleans—the urban district with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country—as reason to implement their reforms elsewhere. “We don’t know if similar efforts can be replicated in other cities,” argued Neerav Kingsland, a prominent New Orleans reformer. “But we owe it to the children of this country to try and find out.” Tulane economist Doug Harris, who has conducted the most rigorous research on New Orleans reforms to date, says it’s questionable whether their model would work in other cities given the unique economic and political conditions present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

OK, so reformers and philanthropists are drawn to ideas that can scale—and apparently have been for a long time. Still, how should we be thinking about Eli Broad’s plan to “charterize” L.A.? Is there anything new about today’s crop of philanthropists? Several contributors to the HistPhil blog argue yes.

Sociologist Robin Rogers says that the ideas held by modern philanthropists reflect those commonly seen in the venture capital world. She cites an influential article from 1997 in The Harvard Business Review that encouraged philanthropists to pursue social change using tactics commonly employed in the business sector. “Considered to be more muscular than traditional approaches to philanthropy, the new philanthropy appeals to many men who made money in tech or finance sectors,” Rogers writes. “These (primarily) men have great faith in the tools and techniques that they used to disrupt the old economy and usher in the new one.”

While modern philanthropists share some similarities with their rich predecessors, Rogers argues that today’s bunch are far more likely to focus on “institutional pressure points” rather than provide support for a diverse set of projects. (She points to the Gates Foundation’s involvement in promoting the Common Core standards as an example, as well as dogged support for expanding charter schools).

Jeffrey W. Snyder, a postdoctoral research fellow in education, philanthropy, and advocacy at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, also wrote a HistPhil post exploring differences between “old” and “new” philanthropy—specifically in terms of their priorities and philanthropic methods. For one thing, Snyder finds that “new foundation granting in recent years far surpasses the total given by old foundations.”

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

He also says that newer foundations do indeed have different priorities compared to older ones. The latter tends to give substantially to university-based programs and research that aims to improve existing educational systems, while newer foundations donate heavily to charter schools and other organizations that push for more radical change.

We don’t yet know what’s going to happen with Eli Broad’s plan to “reach 50 percent charter market share” within Los Angeles public schools. And it wouldn’t be fair to assume he’ll behave just as Mark Zuckerberg did in Newark, or as other billionaires have elsewhere. Still, paying attention to historical precedent is important, and there seems to be sufficient reason to be wary. As The Washington Post’s art critic Philip Kennicott wrote just days ago, Eli Broad “is a self-made man…who has also built and burned bridges all across [Los Angeles]. Ask around, and no one seems to like him, though many call him effective…They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.”

A small step toward safeguarding Facebook privacy

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 20, 2013.

Millions of people put their lives on Facebook, but thanks to the site’s convoluted and ever-changing privacy policies, they often have little idea who else can see the information they provide or what the company itself is doing with all the personal data it collects. For that reason, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s effort as president of the National Association of Attorneys General to partner with Facebook on a public information campaign is welcome — so long as it doesn’t give the public the impression that the problem of Facebook privacy has been solved.

On Facebook, people publish information about what they like, where they live, where they work, what their relationships are and how to contact them. People also frequently exchange personal and private messages.

Online predators, thieves and frauds have a keen interest in collecting as much personal data as they can to harm, rob or impersonate individuals. Employers and admissions officers actively seek out information that many applicants likely never thought would be public. And Facebook itself makes money from the use of the personal data it collects in ways that users may not realize or appreciate.

The threats to privacy in the digital age have clearly outpaced the government’s regulatory framework. The dominant legislation that governs Internet privacy, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, was written in 1986, before social-networking sites like Facebook were even conceived. The ECPA says that the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to digital files — but only if they are not given to a third party server. Given that Facebook is a third party server with some of our most private information, the law is of little use. For the time being, safeguarding privacy is up to individual users.

The educational campaign Mr. Gansler helped arrange will consist of tips and resources to help clarify some commonly misunderstood privacy questions. The information will be available both on the websites of attorney general across the country and, more importantly, on Facebook itself. Tips include things like, “Think before you tag and check what you are tagged in,” and “Check your audience before you post.”

Soon, public service announcements, starring various attorneys general and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, will also appear on users’ news feeds, in the way that sponsored advertisements often do. That’s important because the information will be more likely to be seen by those who need it most.

It’s a nice idea, but we can’t help but observe that this is also a pretty sweet arrangement for Mr. Gansler, a man with plans to run for governor next year, and for the attorneys general in 49 other states, many of whom likely have similar ambitions. It’s unclear what their presence adds to the effort.

Indeed, the arrangement poses a greater risk than the possibility that Mr. Gansler will get a little free publicity. The use of his image — or that of one of his colleagues from another state — may suggest to the public that the government is giving its sanction to Facebook’s privacy policies or even playing some role in regulating them. If so, a campaign to get people to be more careful in their online activities might have the opposite effect.

After all, the greatest perpetrator of privacy confusion is often Facebook itself; the company’s practice of manipulating privacy settings, even after users have taken the time to set them, can become a confounding puzzle and headache. Facebook’s “targeted advertisements” are very often a result of information users hadn’t realized they released.

Mr. Gansler says he raised the issue of Facebook’s frequent privacy policy changes, but the site has made no commitment to mend its ways. The partnership, it seems, only goes so far. If this is a step in the right direction, it is a small one that serves to underscore the need for a much broader conversation about these issues.

Is gay marriage a gateway issue for political activism?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29, 2013.

This week, as the Supreme Court took up two historic cases pertaining to same-sex marriage, it’s been an exciting time to be a college student. Huge numbers of young people on Facebook and Twitter continue to post pictures and status updates in support of marriage equality. Kids proudly walk around campus sporting red clothing in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that seeks to promote equal rights for gays, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The enthusiasm, from the quad to the blogosphere, is infectious and inspiring.

“As an LGBT student at Hopkins, I have been truly humbled by the way that my fellow students have rallied around this issue,” said Danielle Stern, who, like me, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopkins isn’t a campus where students get excited easily.”

For so many of us, this feels like our civil rights moment. We grew up studying the struggles of our great-grandparents, our grandparents and our parents who fought for racial equality and social justice. But for me and for my peers, who grew up in an era marked by questionable wars in the Middle East, which in turn seemed to promote Islamophobia at home, politics seemed to represent a smarmy, dark, and at best, unengaging enterprise.

But suddenly there is an issue that people can get excited about. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 81 percent of 18-29 year olds support marriage equality. And that figure, though staggering to some, is not all that surprising. We’re the generation that grew up with Ellen Degeneres, Will and Grace, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean. Gay role models today exist in almost every arena. Not supporting gay rights seems so at odds with everything we’ve grown up with. In the eyes of the youth, it’s bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

As I watch my friends from the left and right get their first taste of political activism in support of marriage equality, I wonder, could this type of involvement be here to stay?

In some respects, it is hard to imagine another type of issue that could garner such massive, broad-based support, yet political science tells us that political participation begets more political participation. Could gay marriage be the “gateway issue” for more kids to engage in the politics?

Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer found that often the most motivating factor for voters to turn out to the polls is simply that they have developed the habit to vote before. “Interest does not lead to participation,” Mr. Plutzer said. “Rather, participation promotes interest.” In other words, perhaps the most successful way to get Americans to vote throughout their lifetimes is to get them to vote for their first time.

To be sure, young people today aren’t citing gay marriage as their top issue at the voting booth. According to research conducted by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), only 3.8 percent of young voters named gay rights as their top issue in the 2012 presidential election. The vast majority of voters, both young and old, cited the economy and jobs as being most important to them.

But could simply participating in this historic moment along with the rest of the 81 percent in my generation be enough to ignite further participation down the road? We are given the opportunity to see political engagement at its best, and maybe the consequences will be lasting.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine thinks there is indeed a chance gay rights could be that gateway issue. “While there isn’t clear research that political organizing leads to more political organizing, the evidence from the voting world is pretty suggestive,” he said. “We know once you get people voting, it often leads to more voting.”

Will my generation move from gay rights to the environment or some other big issue? Time will tell. For now, I will enjoy this warm moment in history, as youth across the United States take part in the political process that will inevitably, and assuredly, give the gay community the rights they so very much deserve. And hopefully, this unique issue, which touched so many of us personally, will keep many more of us involved in the future.

Joseph Kony and the Internet

I, like probably many others reading this, logged onto Facebook last night and saw: “Amy Smith and 45 other friends shared a link ____” Linking us to the now incredibly viral Kony video made by an NGO, called Invisible Children. Invisible Children’s mission is defined as “A movement seeking to end the conflict in Uganda and stop the abduction of children for use as child soldiers.” Well, who can argue with that?

photo credit: border7.com

I had a lot of mixed reactions after watching the video, and then watching it spread across all of my social media websites. I felt sad and outraged for the children in the video. I felt excited by the sheer explosion of positive, social justice messages I was reading everywhere.  But, as much as I hate to rain on the parade, I also felt uncomfortable by this giant social media “support.”

Remember SOPA and PIPA? The viral internet campaign to stop “evil” legislation that would “change the internet forever” ? I’ll be the first to say I signed that petition. The fact that Wikipedia was engaging in a political fight seemed incredibly motivating and exciting. Well, it wasn’t until a few days after everything blew over, the facebook statuses changed, the tweets switched topics, that I began to read some critical articles about the SOPA protests. (Here’s a good one)

What about the Planned Parenthood episode? That was the viral internet campaign of the beginning of February. I proudly signed that petition too. I shared in my fellow liberal peers’ indignation and anger at the audacity of Susan G. Komen’s foundation decision. I felt very sure of myself and my convictions that something very bad  just happened. And when the Komen Foundation reversed their decision, I went to bed at night happy and satisfied. Justice had been served.

photo credit: dailybeast.com

Well, it wasn’t until a few days after everything blew over, the Facebook statuses changed, the tweets switched topics, that I began to read some critical articles about the Planned Parenthood media coverage. (It’s not that I changed my opinion necessarily, I just had to admit I never really took the time to play a real devil’s advocate. ) Here’s a good one.

What have I learned from all of this?
1. Social media activism is a real, and powerful thing. It’s incredibly exciting and infectious.
2. Because it’s so easy to get swept up in the hype, critical thinking is very often put on the back burner.
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Ok, now the Kony videos.
In a lot of ways I felt that same sort of excited, awestruck feeling I had with the SOPA and Planned Parenthood campaigns. Watching so many of my Facebook friends galvanized in support for a cause was great. It felt good to see Facebook and Twitter become tools for seemingly wonderful things.

But then I went and read more about Invisible Children, and found there’s actually a huge debate about all of this.

Visible Children, a Tumblr blog that has received a lot of attention, has questioned Invisible Children, asserting that its social media tactics aren’t the right way. “These problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow.”

In November, a Foreign Affairs article challenged the methods used by Invisible Children that were trying to raise awareness in the region. “Such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil,” the magazine wrote

And here is another interesting perspective I read.  This guy says, “One problem: [The videos] fall into the trap, the belief that the problem is ignorance and the answer is education. When we tell more people about Kony and the LRA, something WILL happen. It’s not true. Bono, Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie and thousands of others have brought more attention, more education, more money to issues – it doesn’t solve them. White ignorance is not the problem… It is built on the idea that Africa needs saving – that it is the White man’s burden to do so. More education does not change the systems and structures of oppression, those that need Africa to be the place of suffering and war and saving.” He writes that if anything, this only further fuels our Western impression that Africa is a place just full of HIV, war, and famine.

We shall see what ultimately happens. I think that on one level its absolutely awesome that the world is banding together to rid the world of this terrible, immoral person. But I am also really hoping that this is not just the Internet flavor of the week. I am hoping that this is more than some sexy social justice cause. And I am also hoping that people who care about this issue will continue to read about it, think critically, and challenge institutions and even organizations like Invisible Children when they need to be challenged. It’s something I’m going to try to work on myself.