Donors Reforming Schools in the U.S. (Part 4)

As a teacher, superintendent, and professor I have been fortunate in receiving grants from donors over the decades. Small, middle-sized, and large grants came to support and expand my efforts in classrooms (e.g., Teacher Innovation Fund in Washington, D.C.), district (e.g., helping non-English speaking immigrants in Arlington, VA) and research I and colleagues did in schools and districts near Stanford University (e.g., Spencer Foundation, Hewlett and Packard Foundations). I enjoyed the benefits that flowed from having funds that I could use for classroom, school, and district innovations and classroom research with no strings attached.

Over the past decade, I have also been involved in researching the awards that donors have made (and continue to do so) to improve schools in the U.S. I and others have written extensively and critically about philanthropy and occasional over-reaching in prodding schools to improve (see here, here, here, and here).

I have experienced mixed feelings about these small and large grants to schools to try out different approaches to helping both teachers and students improve their performance. When, for example, the Gates Foundation stopped funding small high schools in 2008, gave large amounts to propagate Common Core Standards in 2010, and underwrote IPET (see parts 1, 2, and 3), my initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops. Sure, foundation officials consulted with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom consulted with people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ).

So I saw such public and private disappointments in foundations stumbling and donors admitting defeat as no more than chickens coming home to roost. Sharp-minded, well-intentioned donors spent lots of money to get improved test scores and schools and for that time and money getting no more than scratch marks in the ground that disappear after the first rain. Arrogant over-reaching in pressing upon schools a magical solution was common. Turning their backs on local expertise and getting little return, I felt, was well deserved.

The second reason I didn’t like donors dispensing large gobs of cash to schools was that the federal government encouraged and subsidized donor gifts. Rob Reich* in Just Giving has this to say in an interview about his book:

The public policies in the United States, and in many other countries, confer enormous privileges on philanthropists. Private foundations are largely unaccountable – no one can be unelected in a foundation, and there are no competitors to put them out of business. They are frequently nontransparent – more than 90 percent of the roughly 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. have no website. And they are donor-directed, and by default exist in perpetuity. Finally, it might seem that philanthropy is just the exercise of the liberty of people to give away their money. But philanthropy is generously tax subsidized, costing the U.S. Treasury more than $50 billion in forgone revenue last year.

Even though I have benefited from donor grants over the years, there is much I do not like in the ways private donors have pursued school improvement in hop-scotch ways, unaccountable to anyone but their self-selected boards and handsomely subsidized through federal tax deductions. Still there is an argument to be made in support of unaccountable private philanthropy seeking public good in a democracy.

Rob Reich makes those arguments and they are worth paying attention to.

First, donors can give grants to organizations and individuals who seek to increase social capital in cities, rural, and suburban areas. When hurricanes and earthquakes occur and government and non-government responses are either weak or delayed, strangers and neighbors band together to help. At other times, social capital is built through school PTAs, softball leagues, church congregations, neighborhood crime watch groups, collective efforts to build a corner playground, get traffic signals at dangerous intersections and similar activities across a city create networks of cooperation.

Building trust and cooperation within neighborhoods and across divisive groups, strengthening norms that bring people together to work toward a more diverse and healthier community is a job that governments and market capitalism often can’t or won’t do. There is, then, a role for philanthropy to help Americans engage in collective efforts to strengthen networks that glue groups and individuals to one another in building trust and trying to solve serious problems (see here, here, and here).

Second, donors can take risks in experimenting with their money that government and the market can’t or won’t. Keep in mind that democracies have a short-term horizon and are anchored in the present. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box every few years and therefore respond to immediate problems with solutions that are built in the here and now. They take care of the problem as quickly as possible. Thus, democracies seldom look to future generations. And here is where, Reich, argues philanthropy can play a part by giving money to individuals and organizations that have a long-term horizon and are concerned about the future. Wealthy entrepreneurs have set up cancer and heart research foundations to fast-track cures in recent years. Ditto for the arts and education. From funding climate change research and dissemination to trying out innovations in non-coal energy alternatives to underwriting experiments in health care and schooling–donors can take risks with their money to strengthen and enhance public goods that elected officials and entrepreneurial investors can’t or won’t do.

While I continue to have mixed feelings about private donors pursuing public good such as school improvement, the arguments that Reich makes have given me pause to think further about the value in a democracy of unaccountable and federally subsidized educational philanthropy.



*Full disclosure: I have known Rob Reich since he was a graduate student in a class on the history of school reform that David Tyack and I taught two decades ago. He and I have stayed in touch ever since.



Filed under Reforming schools

5 responses to “Donors Reforming Schools in the U.S. (Part 4)

  1. Thank you, Larry, for this series. It was educational as always, and expanded my reading backlog (smile). Yesterday at #RealizeNGSS I noted multiple laments of the end of MSP (math science partnership) funding. It seems to illustrate that some work just does not happen without a (private or public) foundation as catalyst. I have seen some advancement over recent decades in attention to program evaluation and dissemination, with scale and sustainability in mind. I credit this to the learning that foundation officers needed to achieve, resulting (sometimes) in better informed requirements. Still, much of the wisdom is lost to reports that few read, much less use to elevate policy and practice. How do you see the evolution of foundations going forward?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment and question, Steven. Foundations will continue to fund projects such as MSP and officers’ learning curve will be steep at the beginning of their tenure and then they will leave. Another cycle begins. Family foundations, especially here in Silicon Valley will try to be catalysts to speed up efforts that converge with their goals while others will take big risks in health, arts, and education. I do not see any shift in giving occurring in the immediate future as long as foundations are unaccountable and their grants are tax deductible.

  2. For some reason, Larry, your reference to “Another cycle begins” prompted an ear worm — Harry Chapin’s “Circle.” But you are in there in Silicon Valley, and I am sitting here in “Silicon Prairie,” immediately between the Argonne and Fermilab national labs. In both places, “big science” funding has been radically disruptive to culture and society, seemingly without quite an analogous R&D investment in public education. (You have written extensively on the history of reform, so I need not go on here.)

    But please say more about how foundations should be accountable, and the implications of grants being tax deductible. Otherwise, what I imagine this means could miss your point, I fear.

    Meanwhile, “…the years keep on rollin’ by.”

    • larrycuban

      The federal tax deduction for gifts will not go away easily since wealthy donors also can lobby federal legislators and create organizations sympathetic to tax deductions. So subsidies for giving will continue;lost revenue to the U.S. treasury will continue as well. I see no political will or coalition building to end such public privileges to private donors. As to accountability, raising the 5% rule that foundations must spend annually to 10 or 15% would be one step in the direction of accountability. Soft regulations of donors in reporting to the public (beyond glossy annual reports) and having websites that allow comments on grants, etc. would be another. Creating an independent oversight organization that monitors gift-giving from largest foundations and reports to the U.S. Congress might be another. Perhaps, Steven, you have some other suggestions. Thanks for comment and question.

  3. Thank you for your reply. This does clarify. Along with website transparency, I’d like to see far more open source reporting of audited program evaluation data (complaint with 45 CFR 46a, of course) linked to credible impact reports as you noted, well “beyond glossy annual reports”. Here, we can give MET due credit for transparency of methods and outcomes. There does seem to be growing motivation to raise the bar, e.g., In the meantime, I’m thinking we might toss the question to Freakonomics (smile). With gratitude!

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