CMD on privatization of public ed through philanthropy
The cost of public education in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone exert with a few billion dollars? Decisive influence, it turns out. Find out what big donors are buying in public education.
A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy -- where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision -- investing in education yields great bang for the buck.
Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation -- working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don't rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher. Other foundations -- Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few -- often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement's success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.
Every day, dozens of reporters and bloggers cover the Big Three's reform campaign, but critical in-depth investigations have been scarce (for reasons I'll explain further on). Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working. Stanford University's 2009 study of charter schools -- the most comprehensive ever done -- concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation's most extensive and aggressive school reform programs -- in Chicago and New York City -- but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.