Education reform has been heavily influenced in recent years by massively wealth philanthropists who fund their own favored school reforms and then bring public policy along with them. How this is affecting the democratic process is the subject of a piece in Dissent Magazine titled, “Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy,” by Joanne Barkan, a writer based in New York City and Truro, Massachusetts.

Barkan explains why the current stream of philanthropic giving is different from private donations made in the past, and she uses school reform as a case study of the problems facing the democratic process when the very wealthy have, for various reasons, a wide berth to influence public policy.

You can read the whole piece. Here’s part of it, with permission from the author:

…Right now, big philanthropy in the United States is booming. Major sources of growth have been the wealth generated by high-tech industries and the expanding global market. In September 2013 there were sixty-seven private grant-making foundations with assets over $1 billion. The Rockefeller Foundation, once the wealthiest, now ranks fifteenth; the Carnegie Corporation ranks twentieth (Foundation Center).


Mega-foundations are more powerful now than in the twentieth century—not only because of their greater number, but also because of the context in which they operate: dwindling government resources for public goods and services, the drive to privatize what remains of the public sector, an increased concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, celebration of the rich for nothing more than their accumulation of money, virtually unlimited private financing of political campaigns, and the unenforced (perhaps unenforceable) separation of legal educational activities from illegal lobbying and political campaigning. In this context, big philanthropy has too much clout….


…For a dozen years, big philanthropy has been funding a massive crusade to remake public education for low-income and minority children in the image of the private sector. If schools were run like businesses competing in the market—so the argument goes—the achievement gap that separates poor and minority students from middle-class and affluent students would disappear. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have taken the lead, but other mega-foundations have joined in to underwrite the self-proclaimed “education reform movement.” Some of them are the Laura and John Arnold, Anschutz, Annie E. Casey, Michael and Susan Dell, William and Flora Hewlett, and Joyce foundations.


Each year big philanthropy channels about $1 billion to “ed reform.” This might look like a drop in the bucket compared to the $525 billion or so that taxpayers spend on K–12 education annually. But discretionary spending—spending beyond what covers ordinary running costs—is where policy is shaped and changed. The mega-foundations use their grants as leverage: they give money to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations’ pet policies. Resource-starved states and school districts feel compelled to say yes to millions of dollars even when many strings are attached or they consider the policies unwise. They are often in desperate straits.


Most critiques of big philanthropy’s current role in public education focus on the poor quality of the reforms and their negative effects on schooling—on who controls schools, how classroom time is spent, how learning is measured, and how teachers and principals are evaluated. The harsh criticism is justified. But to examine the effect of big philanthropy’s ed-reform work on democracy and civil society requires a different focus. Have the voices of “stakeholders”—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened? Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased? Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled? Are politicians more or less responsive to them? Is the press more or less free to inform them? According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.


The best way to show this is to describe how mega-foundations actually operate on the ground and how the public has responded. What follows are reports on a surreptitious campaign to generate support for a foundation’s teaching reforms, a project to create bogus grassroots activity to increase the number of privately managed charter schools, the effort to exert influence by making grant money contingent on a specific person remaining in a specific public office, and the practice of paying the salaries of public officials hired to implement ed reforms.


You Can’t Fool All of the People All of the Time


The combination of aggressive style, controversial programs, and abundant money has led some mega-foundations into the world of “astroturfing.” This is political activity designed to appear unsolicited and rooted in a local community without actually being so. Well-financed astroturfing suffocates authentic grassroots activity by defining an issue and occupying the space for organizing. In addition, when astroturfers confront grassroots opposition, the astroturfers have an overwhelming advantage because of their resources. Sometimes, however, a backlash flares up when community members realize that paid outsiders are behind a supposedly local campaign.


In 2009 the Gates Foundation funded the creation of a nonprofit organization to stir up grassroots support for the foundation’s teacher effectiveness reforms. The reforms used students’ scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and award bonuses, abolished tenure, and ended seniority as a criterion for salary increases, layoffs, and transfers. Gates paid a philanthropy service group called Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) $3.5 million to set up the new nonprofit. Its staff would target four “sites”—Pittsburgh, Memphis, Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida), and a consortium of Los Angeles charter schools—where Gates was about to invest $335 million to try out its reforms. RPA’s confidential proposal, which was leaked to the media in 2011, described a potential pitfall for “Teaching First” (the nonprofit’s provisional name):


“Another risk is that Teaching First will be characterized as a tool of the [Gates] Foundation and/or motivated by a political agenda other than improving public education….One way Teaching First can minimize the likelihood of being tagged as an outsider is to maintain a low public profile and to ensure publicity and credit accrue to local partners whenever possible.”


Renamed Communities for Teaching Excellence, the nonprofit was launched in 2010. It survived for barely two years. Operating out of Los Angeles while trying to produce local enthusiasm for controversial policies in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Tampa didn’t work. In addition, there was growing competition: various philanthropies, including Gates, began funding other nonprofits that sent paid staff around the country to start a variety of ed-reform campaigns. These efforts were also astroturfing, but many had greater success—in part because they had multiple and less identifiable funders. Amy Wilkins, chair of the board of directors of Communities for Teaching Excellence, summed up the problem for the Los Angeles Times (October 19, 2012): “Gates was such a big part of the funding. That made some of the partners and other funders nervous. How do you look like an independent actor? You have to show broad public support so you’re not seen as a phony-baloney front for Gates. People criticized the organization for that, and they didn’t move closer to shaking that label.”


The leaked proposal for Teaching First/Communities for Teaching Excellence reads like a how-to manual for big-budget astroturfing. Here are some of the tips:


“[I]t may be important for local Teaching First staff to support and participate in campaigns that only are tangentially related to the teacher effectiveness agenda in order to build trust among allies….


“Community-based organizations are much more likely to pick up the reform agenda and stick with it if they can support staff through this work and if they are able to forego other sources of funding….


‘With professional assistance from one or more communications firms, Teaching First will commission public opinion research and focus groups to hone a set of core messages that can be customized to each district’s context.…Teaching First should have a budget for billboards, bus and newspaper ads, and other mass media communications.”

Read the whole article.