No Responsibility for Oops! Donors and School Reform

Critics of current donors often point to how philanthropists have supported centralizing school governance (e.g., mayoral control, state takeovers of districts and schools, No Child Left Behind). They note that the inevitable companion of consolidated authority is increased top-down regulation of schooling in cities and states. And that regulation, they claim, has seen the growth of explicit federal and state accountability mechanisms. The critics are correct.

Yet as venture philanthropists have advocated market-friendly ventures in public schools and approved of centralized local, state, and federal policymaking, donors themselves have escaped responsibility for errors they committed in grant-making. Like the Ebola virus, donors dread federal and state regulation of their publicly subsidized foundation activities. The fact is, however, that they have no accountability for their own “oops!” or dumb mistakes.

When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. Donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately invention of better ways to solve it.

For those who support philanthropic giving, this unaccountability is an exercise of personal liberty in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy. Moreover, some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’ “ [i]

Being society’s “passing gear,” however, assumes that funders and their retinue of experts know best how to identify educational problems, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that solve the problem. When donors bet foolishly or are simply wrong and projects and programs fail who are these funders answerable to for their errors in judgment? No one, as far as I can see.

That tension of donors exercising their individual liberty to make decisions that impact people’s lives yet are free to walk away unscathed from bad decisions, is the awkward position that tax-supported philanthropy holds in a democracy. Tension arise and can get nasty when foundations side-step responsibility for their failures.

Consider the Ford Foundation’s involvement in decentralization and community control in big city districts in the late-1960s. New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed Ford Foundation President, McGeorge Bundy, to head a mayoral panel on school system decentralization. Bundy, a former adviser to both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to steer the Ford Foundation toward improving U.S. race relations and an integrated society through rational analysis and institutional changes. He saw administrative decentralization giving power to minority parents to shape schools that would benefit their communities. He also possessed much certainty once he decided on a course of action. According to one source, Bundy ended a discussion at a foundation meeting by telling program officers: “Look, I’m settled about this. Let’s not talk about it any more. I may be wrong, but I’m not in doubt.” [ii]

Supporting district decentralization, Ford officials confidently forged ahead in the mid-1960s with grants for particular projects located in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side. Bundy picked a foundation program officer and former New York City teacher, Mario Fantini, to head up Ford’s entry into big city school politics. Ford officials believed that decentralizing power to clusters of schools where black parents sent their children would break the choke-hold that district bureaucracy had on schools thus unleashing innovation and changes that would benefit parents, teachers and students.

These three “demonstration districts” had school boards comprised of parents and community activists who made decisions (e.g., hiring and firing) for the schools they controlled. When when those projects subsequently appointed black principals and fired white teachers, union antagonism toward the experiments erupted leading to more than a month-long teacher strike in 1968. The strike ended the “demonstration districts” but there were no winners since racial hostility and antisemitism unleashed by the conflicts over community control wracked the district and city in subsequent years.[iii]

And the Ford Foundation? McBundy and Fantini metaphorically dusted off their hands and walked away from direct involvement in decentralizing big city bureaucracies and community control of schools. The involvement of the Foundation in its aggressive advocacy for these solutions to unclog urban bureaucracies, however, did contribute to the U.S. Congress’s rewriting the law and tax code governing philanthropy in 1969. Donor advocacy for certain policies became a red flag foundations had to observe since 1969.

There are other documented “oops” such as the Annenberg Challenge in the early 1990s that spread nearly a billion dollars among selected urban school districts (from Annenberg and other foundations who met the challenge grant). The Challenge produced little or lasting change in school structures and student outcomes. And what about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation advocacy for small high schools and suddenly cutting the flow of money for this initiative.[iv]

This lack of responsibility for errors in judgment in improving schooling has been a staple in critics’ arsenal in attacking foundations making education grants. I find much merit in this criticism.


[i] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at:

[ii] Tamar Jacoby, “McGeorge Bundy: How the Establishment’s Man Tackled America’s Problem with Race,” Alicia Patterson Foundation Magazine, 1991. At:

[iii] Bundy continued at the Ford Foundation until 1979 while Fantini left Ford to become dean at a university school of education in 1970. For a description of the 1969 law, see Thomas Troyer, “The 1969 Private Foundation Law: Historical Perspective on Its Origins and Underpinnings,” Paper presented October 28, 1999 at a roundtable sponsored by the New York University School of Law’s National Center on Philanthropy and the Law.

[iv] Mark Smylie and Stacy Wenzel, “The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures, and Lessons for the Future,” Final technical Report, 2003, Consortium of Chicago School Research.



Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “No Responsibility for Oops! Donors and School Reform

  1. Name anyone in any position of authority or influence who is held accountable, truly accountable, for bad decisions. Everyone, everywhere simply walks away unscathed. Every proponent of the educational fad du jour walks away unscathed — or maybe with their PhDs. So, are school board members ever held accountable? Not being reelected is not being held accountable! What about superintendents? About every five years, school superintendents play musical chairs as they move from one school district to another. It’s an inconvenience to be sure, but there is little sense that they are being held accountable. Principals are the same.

    Bad decisions, wrong decisions do have victims and they are indeed being held accountable for their own bad decisions as well as the bad decisions of others. These are the students and parents of students. Teachers fit within the class of those being held accountable and victims at the same time.

    Everyone else, commentators, reporters, politicians, get to walk away unscathed.

  2. I absolutely love your essays. You’ve made some amazing points here. I’ve wondered some of these things myself but have never really articulated them. You speak my thoughts succinctly. Regards,Lisa____________________Lisa Easterling♥ Teacher For Life ♥Elite Educators StudentSt. Petersburg College____________________  

  3. Alice in PA

    You definitely have found a hole in the entire accountability argument. As a teacher, I am pounded with accountability measures, some of which are meaningful ( but usually not well designed), some of which is more akin to a game of test score roulette.

    However, the foundations which sponsor the myriad of initiatives that I am required to implement are not called out when their latest love fails to achieve their goals. They move onto another love affair. My school moves onto another foundation grant. I then have another set of procedures, forms, and “best practices” piled on top of those left behind by the previous initiatives.

    And of course, any upward blip in test scores is immediately attributed to whatever initiative we are currently implementing!

  4. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    Larry Cuban highlights the reckless nature of major philanthropies whose lack of accountability often leaves students and their schools worse off than before any reform efforts were foisted upon them.

    Center stage in this article, McGeorge Bundy, a leading proponent for escalating the war in Vietnam, has no doubt in his edicts, whether they ultimately benefit the recipients of his decisiveness or not, witness the demise of the Republic of Vietnam and the immeasurable cost to our country and the hundreds of thousands of American casualties.

    It seems philanthropies simply use the same playbook as other elites in our society, such as the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, who recently escaped unscathed, and inconceivably rewarded, for his firm’s role in the global financial meltdown.

    Apparently, noblesse oblige only applies to the friends and families of our nation’s elite, and not the common folk, such as those in public education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s