Another OOPS! Philanthropist Sees The Light… Finally

Here is a “mea culpa” from Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who made his fortune in technology companies. Hanauer gave much money to transform schools so that they could become engines of equity erasing economic and social inequalities (and poverty as well) that bedevil American society.

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized iour curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong….

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

Hanauer’s open apology for misconstruing cause and effect between the larger society and public schools–a basic proposition that educators and non-entrepreneurs and venture capitalists  over the age of 25 learn–appears sincere but, for me, unconvincing. Why? Because Hanauer is only the most recent of well-intentioned philanthropists who underestimate the complexity of public schools in a market-driven democracy and see schools driving societal change. They donate large sums of money to transform schools.


Foundation officials often consult with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom ask 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). Or consider the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation.

The Gates Foundation gave over a billion dollars to make high schools smaller beginning in 2000. They stopped funding small high schools in 2008. In 2009, they began funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in multiple districts across the country. No more funding after 2016 (see here, here, and here). 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.

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. They shrug when anticipated consequences of their “gifts” harm districts, schools, teachers, and students. But 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 inventing better ways to solve it.


At least, venture capitalist Nick Hanuaer owned up to his mistake in thinking that transforming public schools will erase societal inequities. I do not know of other donors who have the guts to admit that they erred in their thinking and gift-giving when it involved public schools.




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

10 responses to “Another OOPS! Philanthropist Sees The Light… Finally

  1. Lawrence

    Kudos Larry for so clearly articulating a problem where others have cautiously nibbled around the edges in fear they might lose funding from obscenely wealthy technology tycoons. One does not want to bite the ‘well intentioned’ hand that feeds them (the techno philanthropists), but money that is doing harm regardless of the intentions is no better than taking money away and doing harm. I have watched for years as technologists, many with little formal education, have made enormous fortunes most people cannot fathom from an ‘app’ that became enourmously popular. In turn the technologists realized that even though they have more money than God, it was largely just luck. They watch in awe as real educators with less than six figure salaries who actually know something about education are getting the job done, while they…the super rich…have nothing but….well, truckloads of cash. It’s a symptom that psychologists refer to as ‘imposter phenomenon,’ a infirmity that affects the newly and/or obscenely rich, among others, who realize their fortune is the result of considerable luck and want to venture into a field that actually requires extensive education and buy some credibility. What better place to do it than education, where the neoliberal university presidents hand out ‘honorary doctorates’ and commencement speaking invitations like chiclets in turn for large donations to the revered endowment fund; a fund that usually benefits no one but the university administration whose salaries get jacked up to obscene levels and rarely benefit students. Much more can be said/written or your topic, and has, but unfortunately there is so much money thrown about that sometimes even those who profess to having ethics beyond reproach will succumb. I will watch in interest to see if you have more thoughts on the subject, especially observations you might proffer from your many years of experience in education. As to your thought on why other donors (aka venture capitalists) are not held accountable, who do you think is going to call them out. To do that would mean they will cut off the flow of cash. Thanks for being above that Larry.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Nick’s website lists his philanthropic activities. He is a donor to the Robinhood Foundation which in turn supports the Success Academy charter chain in NYC. Robinhood also has metrics for calculating the economic value of social services and thus how profits can be made from social impact bonds or pay for success contracts. As an example, Robinhood calculated the economic worth of a high quality preschool program for NYC children at over $50,000 per child. Of course no philanthropist is making that kind of investment. I am also wary of Nick’s enthusiasm for innovations. and technologies as if inherently powerful ways to address social problems. His for profit investments focus on tech for efficiency in business. One supports a venture that enables people, likely teens, to buy attire that resembles what celebrities wear. Nick’s ideas are not entirely his own. He is also cowriting a book with an economist with more theoretical and practical arguments of the kind presented in the Atlantic article. Of course, scholars in educationhave long known that education alone is not likely to lift all boats.

  3. bowneps

    I’m very new to this topic, so excuse me if I’m asking a beyond-basic question. But given that education is generally justified by the argument that educating people will improve their lot in life, isn’t admitting that the schools will only get better if the students’ parents have already improved their lot in life raising the question of why we even have public education? Or at the very least, saying that schools cannot claim to do what we give them money in the hope of their doing?
    In which case, what *are* schools doing for us, and specifically, for the poor whose parents cannot insist on good schools – and what could we do for those people instead, with the money we now spend on schools?

    • larrycuban

      Social mobility and a “better” life have surely motivated millions of Americans, past and present, to enter tax-supported public schools. The more common phrase is that the purpose of public schools is to prepare the young for the job market. But Americans, with or without children, have taxed themselves to create public schools for nearly two centuries to do more than job preparation. Every democratic nation that has established public schools wants the next generation to take on the duties of being a proud, engaged, and contributing citizen. Yeah sounds like rhetoric (and in many instances it is empty rhetoric) but the fact remains producing loyal, contributing citizens does not magically occur in families, on the streets, or in the workplace. A primary purpose of schooling in a democracy is to construct “good” citizens. Whether public schools do it well or not is another issue but the purpose remains. Public schools also have the purpose of reinforcing American values of individualism, community, and equal opportunity while increasing the well-being of children and youth. Again, these are purposes that Americans have been willing to tax themselves in establishing public schools. That schools also become an escalator to individual success, i.e., social mobility is a collateral benefit (and purpose) for many Americans as well.

      So there are other purposes for public schooling than “educating people will improve their lot in life.” Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Theodore Lobman

    The “Philanthropist sees the light” post reminds me of a deep disagreement between two education advocates I befriended in the 80’s as part of grantmaking.. One believed that high-stakes testing was/is essential, flawed as the tests are, to holding schools accountable and, in particular, motivating officials and some of the public to try harder. The other argued that schools have too little capacity to overcome the home and community disadvantages low-income students face so it’s grossly unfair and unrealistic to hold teachers and principals accountable for eliminating the achievement gap.

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Had missed this earlier post, but it is a good read to share!

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