There have been many criticisms of big donors in the past decade (see here and here). They have been criticized for trying to privatize public schools and throwing their considerable weight around in advocating policies that will increase numbers of charter schools, spread vouchers, evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, and, in general, oppose teacher unions. I will take up each of these criticisms in a chapter I am now drafting for a book on educational philanthropy that will be published in 2015.
For this post, however, I want to describe another criticism that is often mentioned but seldom developed, one that, I believe, should be front-and-center in the debate over the role that big donors play in pushing a reform agenda. What follows is a first draft. I have excluded footnotes documenting statements in this post that will appear in next draft. Any comments would be appreciated.
One criticism I want to examine is that In centralizing governance of schools, policymakers, supported by major donors, have squelched public and professional voices.
The background to this criticism is that the Gates, Walton, Broad, and other foundations have advocated mayoral control in cities, state laws that expand choice of schools, and parent trigger laws that, in effect, strip local school boards of their authority to make decisions, shrink public participation in educational affairs, and diminish teacher and principal professional judgment.
Donors supported state laws expanding charter schools, urged adoption of Common Core standards, and endorsed mayoral control of city districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago because it made grant-making for small high schools, charter schools, and changes in teacher evaluation easier when school authority was fixed in the appointed superintendent’s or chancellor’s office. Here is Bill Gates on mayoral control of schools:
The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned
No extended time going through messy public vetting of each proposal. No squabbling over school board members’ questions and community hearings when decisions could be reached in the mayoral appointed superintendent’s office.
I do not suggest that educational philanthropists have caused centralized policymaking or loss of faith in professional educators’ judgment since both had begun in the mid-1960s with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act underwriting federal and state actions and continued through the 1980s–A Nation at Risk called for states to act on their recommendations–and into the 1990s with the spread of mayoral control in big cities. And of course, No Child Left Behind (2002) has the U.S. Secretary of Education intervening into local schools as never before.
I do suggest, however, that “muscular philanthropy” has accelerated consolidation of authority at local, state, and federal levels with the consequence of even further shrinking citizen and school professional participation in governing schools.
Donors have also helped governors and state legislatures compete for federal funds offered through Race To The Top by bankrolling organizations helping officials negotiate federal eligibility rules to apply for funding. State legislation allowing more charter schools, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and adopting Common Core State Standards and tests strengthened state applications for federal funds. Few local school boards were involved or practitioner voices heard as these state laws imposed top-down requirements on every district and school.
Centralized governing of schools over the past decades has been done not only in the name of increased efficiency in operations and developing excellence in schooling but also in seeking egalitarian outcomes: leave no child behind, college for all, and equipping minority and poor students with essential skills to enter a 21st century workforce. This deep concern for those who have been educationally disadvantaged over decades is part of the belief system of foundation and corporate executives who push for centralized governance, curriculum and testing mandates, and accountability rules.
The sum total of these public and private ventures has meant that large donors have not only set the reform agenda but gone way beyond agenda setting to promote state laws that eroded, no, a more precise word would be—diminished—local public participation and professionals’ judgment in significant decisions.
Although these donor-supported policies have inadvertently drowned the public voice in local decision-making and shifted power to technocrats who guide policy into schools, I doubt that foundation leaders intended to consolidate school decision-making higher up the authority ladder away from local policymakers, professionals, and citizens. Nonetheless, that is what has unintentionally happened over the past 30 years in identifying the problem as failing U.S. schools and the solution of getting schools to be efficient, effective, and excellent through a business-driven, technocratic model of governing schools.
I find much merit in this criticism.