Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

22 responses to “Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

  1. Pingback: Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big ...

  2. jeffrey bowen

    Great, meaty topic for a book. Three thoughts: (1) don’t call it philanthropy–It has little to do with altruism; (2) include a chapter on the value and enduring importance of local school boards; (3) consider school districts’ amazing homeostasis despite corporate and legislative influences, including reference to interstate variations as well as urban versus rural contrasts. Another great book topic might be about the pros and cons of educstion’s multi-layered bureaucracy and how it interacts with “philanthropy.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the suggestions for the chapter I am drafting, Jeff. My chapter will be in a book edited by Jeff Henig and Rick Hess that is examining the past decade of intense philanthropic entrepreneurs.

  3. Yes, indeed. Reform-by-wealth frequently leapfrogs any sort of democratic, merit-based, or professional process. Instead we get, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of money, so I’m in charge now, ‘lright? Everybody who’s willing to do things my way can stay. Everybody else, take a hike.”

    It’s a kind putsch-by-money, and it flies under the radar because, as you say, it’s advertised under the banner of virtues such as efficiency and equality. It also flies under the radar because the reformers own the radar.

    • larrycuban

      I like that phrase you coined: “putsch-by-money.” Never saw that. As for owning the radar, not with the opening up of blogs, multiple media, and increasing criticism of the donor actions from both the left and right.Thanks for the comment, Peter.

  4. Tom Waggoner

    To the extent that the big money supports school choice, parent trigger laws and charter schools, among other reforms, it appears to me that they are pushing in just the opposite direction from your conclusion — they are trying to make local (specifically parent) influence relevant; to give them effective tools to hold the education-political establishment accountable. Individual parents in any given school, even if they are unanimously agreed, can rarely sway a school board election, much less any higher elected position, particularly in larger urban districts. Give the parents the means to govern their own child’s schooling. That’s as “local” as governance can get!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Tom. The Walton Foundation certainly fits the actions you describe in support of paren trigger laws and expanded parental choice. Even a quick scan of last year’s grants that Walton made makes it clear that they are very supportive of bottom-up school reform driven by parental actions.

  5. john a

    You list the symptomology, but do not specifically tie the symptom together as being anti democratic. You seem to take the foundation people and pirvatizers at their word regarding their egalitarian beliefs. Given the business oriented, technocratic, efficiency driven underpinnings, one could argue that these reformers intend to educate students for a more stratified (vertical integration) workforce, which will meet the needs of business. I think you take foundation reformers, hose who attack local control and public school teachers based on what they say, versus what they do. No doubt, your book will unpack the actual behaviors, rather than accwpt their words.

    • larrycuban

      John, I surely understand your point but, I guess we just disagree. I find it hard to attribute with certainty the motives behind donors’ actions. And yes, the chapter I am drafting will try to unpack donor actions rather than accept what they say.

  6. Kathy Cohn

    Larry Cuban is pondering the ill effects of reform philanthropy. Not sure I agree they power shift was unintentional.

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. JMK

    Without question, the philanthropists have accelerate the move away from local control. But as you also point out, that really began much earlier–and I would go 15 years earlier than ESEA, and point out that Brown vs Board of Education was a problem precisely because it attacked local control. Similarly, the integration/busing pushes of the early 70s were opposed because judicial fiat was trumping local control. Plyler vs. Doe prevented schools from banning illegal immigrants. IDEA and other earlier legislation demanded that schools educate (or try to educate) special education students and led to a ballooning of the definition and the spending–much of it in unfunded mandates.

    In order to even try to keep up with federal control, schools are dependent on federal dollars. But once schools and states are dependent on federal dollars, then it becomes natural to look at the number of local districts–each with a superintendent and district staff, each arguably “wasted” if considered against a consolidated district. And of course, local control can occasionally mean stunningly useless administration, like the bankruptcy of Oakland schools a decade or so ago, corrupt principals and superintendents stealing money for their own use, and so on.

    Reformers have difficulty with their message precisely because their methods need fiat control, but they are advocating parental control. This gives them a tough time when they see money wasted on small districts–unless they are charter districts–or when they see parents happily accept an incompetent charter because the people running it are their neighbors, or the school keeps their kids safe from the larger public school that isn’t allowed to expel troublesome students. Or perhaps they just like the school’s curriculum, even if test scores are low. Similarly, reformers are doing their level best to convince suburban parents that their schools are terrible, because they can’t get the control they need unless suburban parents embrace reform. But suburbans don’t buy that message, by and large, and are happy with their schools and unhappy with reformers and their obsession with the achievement gap.

    So yes, you’re right: philanthropists are pushing state or central control. They can pretend that this is about preventing unions from slowing things down, or that bad teachers and incompetent bureaucrats need to be fired so that parents can get what they need. But in fact, they aren’t terribly interested in the parents. For that matter, I don’t think most of them are interested in education. Some of them think, wrongly, that education is easy and teachers are stupid and will lose interest when they realize differently (Gates is in this category, I think). Most of them are using this battle as a way to kill public unions.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Michele, for taking the history of centralizing educational authority back to Brown v. Board of Education. Of the big funders, one in particular funds parent advocacy groups and charter-supportive groups–a version of bottom-up rather than top-down–and that is the Walton Foundation. Tom makes that point. All of the big three donors see teacher unions and collective bargaining contracts as obstacles to the reforms they seek. Yet, keep in mind that the AFT has taken Gates money on numerous occasions.

  8. JMK

    By the way, that last was a convoluted post in the extreme.

    TL, DR: yeah, you’re right. But remember, the move towards federal control began as a matter of civil rights assurance and the reform rhetoric is still using that same mantra to gain control. In reality, reformers are nonplused by their lack of local support and are using federal control as a way to push through their agenda. Same ballgame, different players.

    • jeffrey bowen

      Well said, although I think the impact of federal agendas and bucks can vary significantly by state. AND locally, state and federal influences, along with philanthropic investments, are surprisingly mitigated In the classroom by often stubborn local control. The interplay of philanthropy, partisan politics, and litigation has relevance for the book Larry Cuban is writing.

  9. I saw this on my newsfeed from the Network For Public Education– addressing very similar issues you’ve raised in your blog post.
    http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/ (I’ve pasted their text below.)

    Title: BIG Outside Money is flowing into school board races nationwide

    Here at NPE we’ve been hearing from supporters across the nation that Big Outside Money is changing the face of school board elections from Indiana to California; from Minneapolis to Denver. We have followed up on your tips, and sure enough big money corporate education individuals and their labyrinth of affiliated super PACs are throwing the significant weight of their wallets behind corporate-minded school board candidates, with spending in multiple races at record levels.

    In Denver, Colorado Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has spent over $200,000 supporting two candidates, and opposing two others, for the State Board of Education. DFER is a political action committee favoring charter schools, merit-pay tied to test scores, high-stakes testing, school choice (including vouchers and tuition tax credits in some cases), and alternative teacher preparation programs.

    Jen Walmer, the Executive Director for DFER in Colorado, and the “registered agent” for the DFER super PAC Raising Colorado said, “We have seen the importance of board of education races.”

    The amount of money they have poured into the race is a clear indicator of exactly how important this race is to DFER. Raising Colorado spending amounts dwarf the funds raised by the candidates themselves.

    Candidate Laura Boggs, who is being opposed by DFER, summed it up well when she said, “Coloradans are getting used to groups from New York and D.C. trying to influence our elections. Clearly there is a fight for control of public education.”

    In Minnesota, 50CAN affiliate MinnCAN is wrecking havoc in the Minneapolis school board race. In 2012, the combined total spending for all school board candidates in Minneapolis was $67,000. Fast forward to 2014, and the candidates and Big Outside Money have raised over $460,000.

    Michael Bloomberg, ex NYC mayor and charter champion is playing a big roll with a donation of $100,000 and Arthur Rock, a San Francisco venture capitalist and TFA Board member made a $90,000 contribution.

    Parents in Minneapolis are speaking out about the influx of outside money, and even protesting outside a recent candidate’s forum. Minneapolis dad Greg Abbott said, “I think it’s really an attack on the very idea of public education.” State Rep. Jim Davnie, who is also a parent in the district, echoed this sentiment. Davnie said, “This outside money isn’t about kids and parents and schools in Minneapolis, it’s about some political agenda.”

    Political agendas seem to abound in 2014 school board races, and Indianapolis is no exception. The cash-heavy, anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public school organization Stand for Children Indiana is spending untold sums of money in the Indianapolis Public School Board (IPSB) race. Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller refused to reveal how much they have spent, claiming they are exempt from public disclosure of their campaign spending.

    Contributors to the race include Emma Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg’s daughter and Stand for Children’s Board Chair, and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandburg, who is also an investor in the controversial national charter chain Rocketship Education.

    IPSB President Annie Roof, who is running for re-election, lamented, “The problem with big money is those voices are the ones that tend to be heard the most.” Roof has said she wants to reclaim the label “reformer” and said it should mean advocating for students over any other interest.

    Out of state corporate education supporters are pouring money into an Austin, Texas district race for School Board in support of a little-known candidate who is a “founding administrator” of a KIPP charter school in Austin and is a Teach for America alum. Contributors include Leadership for Educational Equity, the Teach for America political arm; Campbell Brown; Bradley Tusk, Michael Bloomberg’s former campaign manger; Geoff Ralston, a founder in the Imagine K-12 charter schools in California and other founders and board members of charter schools from around the country.

    Big Money’s voice is also being heard in places like Richmond, California where the California Charter Schools Association’s PAC has spent over $200,000 in the West Contra Costa school board election. Also playing a huge role are Stephen and Susan Chamberlin, a retired real estate developer and his wife, who have created a pro-charter school PAC called Education Matters. The PAC has spent over $100,000 in the West Contra Costa race.

    Opposition is emerging in this race as well, and a group of 28 parents from the West Contra Costa Unified School District wrote a letter called “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

    These stories are not happening in isolation, there is a pattern and strategy snaking across the US. The good news is that in each of these stories there is pushback from candidates, parents and teachers who see what it happening. They understand that Big Outside Money is coming to town with its own agenda, and that the agenda is not in the best interest of children. The Network for Public Education sends our thanks to each and every person across the country that is standing up and speaking out.

    NPE will continue to work to amplify the voices of those that stand to protect our public schools. We will shine a bright light on the role of Big Outside Money in education elections around the country. As NPE President Diane Ravitch says, “We are many, and they are few. They have money, but we have the people. And WE WILL WIN.”

    Is Big Outside Money playing an oversized role in your local election? Let us know, so we can help tell your story.

  10. toysmith

    I find myself agreeing with your analysis of “muscular philanthropy” and the impact on education policy, but wonder whether the role of the local school board is a bit of a red herring. You write 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.
    In my (albeit limited) experience, local school boards are the last places I want any serious policy decisions made. The board members tend to have little background in education beyond – perhaps – being parents of current of former students. As a former superintendent yourself, surely you’ve found their politics to be crazy-making at times! Private schools do quite well with teacher-run administration; boards of directors function in an advisory capacity. Shouldn’t citizen boards be advisory – say, such as a citizen review board for a police department – but not executive? -Larry Gallagher

    • larrycuban

      So nice to hear from you, Larry.
      You are surely right that lots of bad policy making and weird things occur among elected school boards. But that is part of the territory in this democracy where non-professionals have policy authority. A five-member school board made up of parents and active citizens hired me as their superintendent .Also think of President Barack Obama as commander-in-chief and ordering troops into action or President Harry Truman firing General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War; think of city mayors who appoint police chiefs and yet have never served a day as a officer on a beat; state legislatures and the U.S. Congress make laws to solve many problems about which they are clearly non-professionals, non-scientists, etc. That is the principle in this democracy. I accept that principle even when it works out badly.

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