Billionaire philanthropists are imposing their views on the rest of society with little accountability for their actions.
“The students affected do not have the luxury of walking away from failed social experiments…When foundations enter into wholesale public-policy promotion using billions to lure tax-starved districts into scaling up untested models, they have a special obligation to act democratically” (David Bloomfield, Education Week, 2006).
James Foster is the mayor of a small, cash-strapped city in the Midwestern United States. That’s not his real name—I’m using pseudonyms to protect my informants. Like many public officials across America since the financial crash of 2008, Foster has faced crises so severe that he often thought he was out of options: with a dwindling population and a shrinking property tax base, the city’s schools have been suffering. Absent a bailout by the state, his school district was recently close to bankruptcy, and dozens of schools were in danger of closing.
A few weeks before the scheduled start of term, a small group of wealthy industry leaders who grew up in the city offered to plug the hole in the education budget with millions of their own philanthropic dollars. Foster was thrilled, but soon the donors wanted more control over how the funds were spent, and they insisted on having oversight of the district’s fiscal health. They made their support contingent on establishing a new system of ‘charter’ schools (publicly-funded but privately managed), which have become a cornerstone of efforts by billionaire philanthropists to reform the national education system.
The strings attached to the donors’ money weren’t attractive, but no support was forthcoming from the state, and retaining control over schools wouldn’t matter if they were bankrupt or closed. So Foster agreed to meet their conditions.
This scenario is increasingly familiar to teachers, school superintendents and civic leaders across the USA. Particularly in struggling post-industrial cities, private philanthropy has emerged as a supplement to public funding, but one that often reflects the views and priorities of external donors. In my home state of Michigan alone, three of the largest cities—Detroit, Flint, and most recently Kalamazoo—have weathered fiscal crises partly through support from private philanthropy. The problem is that these funders are not democratically accountable to the public for their actions.
The Gates Foundation’s vocal and visible role in school reform (mirrored by funding from industrialist Eli Broad and the Walton Family of Walmart fame) is perhaps the most significant example of this dilemma. For the first half-decade of its existence, the Foundation’s flagship was the “small schools” program, a $1.3 billion initiative to break up and reconstitute secondary education into smaller units. But following lackluster results, Gates pulled the plug.
The Gates Foundation believed that the failure of small schools represented an important learning opportunity for innovation in public education, but for the schools that received the money—and accepted the conditions that went with it—the sudden change of direction led to widespread confusion and anxiety. As a Gates Foundation official related to me in 2007:
“All of a sudden, small schools are it—the panacea. Then [we] change [our mind]…we behave as if nothing’s changed, whereas almost all of our grantees from the decade are like ‘what happened to you guys?”
Undaunted, the Foundation pivoted toward funding systemic policy change at the state and federal levels, focusing on what they saw as the key issues of teacher quality and accountability—measured through the results of standardized testing for all schoolchildren and partnering closely with the federal Department of Education under Arne Duncan, a strong proponent of this reform agenda during his time as schools superintendent in Chicago.
Among other efforts, Gates funded an association of state governors to sign a compact in support of a new national curriculum and set of standards that came to be known as the “Common Core.” The Foundation also started a series of what it called “deep dives” in school districts where it funded these reforms most intensively.
For a time, Gates’ new strategy appeared to be gaining traction: the Common Core was instituted in most states, and a standard protocol for teacher evaluation was developed. But just like small schools, the reforms faced significant challenges on the ground. Teachers’ unions rebelled against being evaluated using students’ test scores, and parents and education officials objected to the top-down nature of the reforms.
In 2015, the growing backlash against these efforts culminated in the passage of legislation in at least 12 states that began to dismantle the Common Core. These decisions were widely seen as a referendum on the school reformers’ efforts, including the foundations that had supported them. As a result, Gates made another change, this time pivoting towards “personalized learning” in an effort to use digital technology to tailor teaching and curricula to the needs of each student.
Will “personalized learning” have the results that the Foundation desires, and if not, when will the next pivot occur? What the Gates Foundation views as a series of logical ‘mid-course corrections’ can feel more like whiplash to those working on the ground. As one informant told me:
“If the foundation changes its mind from the point of view of just someone looking at the outside, and all of the sudden [funding] dries up pretty quickly and nobody returns your phone calls anymore, right? It’s a hard way not just to make a living but also to drive effective social change from the grassroots.”
Foundation supporters respond to these critiques by asserting that schools are never compelled to accept their funding, and voluntarily enter into negotiated contracts. But the notion that perpetually cash-poor school districts can turn away large grants is questionable. This is what a Gates Foundation official said when I asked him about this issue:
“Standards, accountability, capacity building, [they’re] commonsensical; you can’t quarrel with them. It remains to be seen whether any district can pull this off, but it becomes a sine qua non for getting funding. If you get our money, you’ll do it. There’s a heavy predisposition to accept the terms.”
But education is a public good: a fundamental human right to which citizens in a democratic society are entitled. It isn’t a private good that can be negotiated with, or directed by, private interests. This distinction is particularly important in low-income communities that are populated predominantly by people of color, where foundations have long concentrated efforts to pursue unproven innovations. These communities are often those most in need of support, where philanthropists feel they can make the biggest impact. That’s why cities in crisis like Detroit and New Orleans have become central sites for charter schools, many of which are low in quality.
However, while foundations may want to catalyze innovation on behalf of poor children, they must be careful to avoid treating schools and communities as laboratories, particularly when poor families are so susceptible to the threat of uninformed consent. In fact citizens are beginning to push back against foundation funding of ‘proof points’ in their districts, arguing that schools are not testing grounds for wealthy philanthropists to conduct their social experiments. In 2016, for example, the California NAACP called for a national moratorium on all new charter schools.
Until recently, public opinion on the democratic responsibilities that accompany private philanthropy by the wealthy was fairly indifferent. A 2006 study, for example, found that 98 per cent of press coverage on philanthropy was neutral or positive in nature. But since then the debate has opened up, and school reform has become the centerpiece of efforts to highlight the dilemmas involved in ‘private funding for the public good’ as philanthropy is often described.
The key issue here is accountability, not stopping the flow of funding into schools that desperately need resources. Foundations are almost unique among large institutions in being free of accountability mechanisms with teeth, so long as they file some basic paperwork with the IRS and steer clear of openly partisan politics. A private corporation or a government department would not have weathered the cycle of interventions in schooling that the Gates Foundation has pursued over the last 15 years—they would have been held accountable for their failures and subject to greater scrutiny by the public.
That’s very difficult to do with foundations because they are self-funded, self-appointed and largely self-regulating institutions with no democratic mechanisms for debate and accountability, but it would certainly be possible for governments at the state and federal levels to mandate the inclusion of members of the public such as teachers, school superintendents, and independent education experts in deliberative processes around any major innovation, and to enforce regular Congressional reviews of foundations’ work whenever it aims to change national policy around public goods like education.
Foundations are notoriously insular institutions, which rarely welcome or seek out criticism, especially from the voices of affected communities. They also tend to resist attempts to regulate their activities—arguing that this would inevitably lead to political interference—but the balance of accountability has swung too far away from public oversight. Even small-scale measures like improving the diversity of boards of trustees have been opposed or watered down by foundation interests.
However, if foundations refuse to put their own house in order then democratically elected authorities have every right to step in. After all, if philanthropy is indeed ‘private funding for the public good’ (and receives tax benefits in return), then the ‘public’ must be involved in monitoring their performance.
Schools, communities and civic leaders like James Foster should be free of any ‘golden handcuffs,’ however well intentioned philanthropists might be. The best way for foundations to contribute to society is by listening, learning and placing their resources at the service of the public, not using them to pursue their own narrow views of what they think the public needs. After all, it’s never too late to get an education, even for a billionaire like Bill Gates.