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.