Wealthy Philanthropic Foundations are Undermining Public Education in the US

Philanthropy is commonly viewed as a beneficial charitable activity that provides worthwhile supplementary funding for much needed services such as education. The Gonski review of school funding and others support a larger role by philanthropic organisations in funding of public education in Australia. However, a new study of wealthy philanthropic education foundations in the United States suggests caution in resorting to philanthropy to support public education.

The new study examined the role of the biggest philanthropic foundations in education in the US and shows that there has been a dramatic change in their funding patterns and engagement in education policy making over the past decade. These foundations now have a major influence over national and state education policy and are using that influence to undermine public education.

The study shows that the composition of the major education foundations has changed significantly since 2000. Foundations traditionally associated with public education have slipped from the top 15 foundations. They have been replaced by organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Robertson Foundation, Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, and Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, all of which stem from vast personal fortunes.

The level of inflation-adjusted funding by the top 15 education foundations increased by 73 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Funding by these groups is now mainly directed at influencing national education debates and supporting alternatives to public education, such as charter schools. This funding has grown at the expense local school district funding.

Funding for charter schools increased from only three per cent of philanthropic grants to education in 2000 to 16 per cent in 2010 and funding for teacher recruitment programs such as Teach for America increased from less than one per cent to ten per cent. Funding for venture capital projects in education also increased substantially. In contrast, funding for traditional public schools fell from 16 per cent to eight per cent and grants to state education departments fell from 12 per cent to one per cent.

Another significant change is that foundations have decreased their level of funding to organizations involved in research, advocacy, and school district partnerships at the local level. National advocacy and policy research organisations now receive the bulk of foundation grants. Funding for these organisations more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 while funding for local advocacy and research organisations decreased by nearly two-thirds.

Many of these philanthropically funded national advocacy organisations work on similar issues. For example, a large group of grant recipients includes organizations working to advance school choice, including those promoting charter schools. Others work at strengthening school accountability policies. Many retain lobbyists to promote their federal legislative agenda. Their aim is to influence national education policy. Beyond federally directed activities, foundations try to influence state policies through more grassroots seminars, webinars, and conferences open to individuals hoping to influence local policy arenas.

The study concludes that the top philanthropic foundations have acted as patrons for a group of organisations to advance a policy agenda to provide alternatives to public education. National advocacy groups are being funded for research, advocacy, and implementation of this agenda.

Wealthy philanthropists now have a major voice in education policy in the US. The influence of these foundations has been heavily criticised by advocates of public education. As Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error, has said: “There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.”

The experience with these wealthy philanthropic foundations in US education serves as a warning about increasing the role of philanthropy in public schools in Australia.

Trevor Cobbold

Sarah Reckhow & Jeffrey W. Snyder 2014. The Expanding Role of Philanthropy in Education Politics, Educational Researcher, 43 (4): 186-195.

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