Joanne Barkan is a writer based in New York City and Truro, Massachusetts. For the past six years, her work has focused on the relationship between “big philanthropy” and democracy, and the intervention of private foundations in public-education policy.(Barkan also has another excellent article, They (Not We) Shall Overcome: Private Largesse and Public Education, that I hope to write about in context of what I see happening in Seattle around discourse on public education reform.)
She describes how it used to be that many foundations had a more "wide-open" mission to many of today's foundations (particularly around public education):
They aim to do good in the world, but each defines “good” idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals. They translate their wealth, the work of their foundations, and their celebrity as doers-of-good into influence in the public sphere—much more influence than most citizens have.
Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny. Like all forms of plutocracy, this one conflicts with democracy, and exactly how these philanthropists coordinate tax-exempt grantmaking with political funding for maximum effect remains largely obscure.She uses this broad point to launch her case study about Bill Gates and Washington State, mostly around charter schools. (Those who have been around longer could certain talk about other efforts - or failures - that Gates tried to push.)
The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to “disrupt” and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K–12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results. Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education-reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.So, if you think about the pending litigation against the latest charter school law, you can see the race is on. I'll double-check but I believe that the plaintiffs are planning to ask for an expedited ruling. That means that a court could make a ruling before summer? or fall? The point is, before the next elections in November where - no surprise - money is being poured into races for Supreme Cour t justices.
I am also gladdened to see her figures on how much money the teachers unions take in (between the
two, it's about $710M in total receipts; that's not even spending.) Contrast that with the muscle coming from Gates, Broad, Waltons, Fisher - there's just no comparison.
Barkan takes us thru the charter history in Washington State and how Gates, after the last win, immediately jumped to funding for the Washington State Charter Schools Association and another org, Charter Board Partners, who opened an office here.
As well after the charter law reconsideration was quashed,
Undeterred, three Gates grantees—the Washington State Charter Schools Association, Stand for Children, and League of Education Voters—partnered to create a PAC to channel money to legislators willing to vote for a modified charter law. When the PAC was announced, in December 2015, checks had already gone out to twenty-four lawmakers.Man, that's fast work but when you have money, those kinds of set-ups can get done quite quickly.
Then, we get to her proposal that Bill Gates seems to find democracy "a nuisance."
The Washington charter saga highlights the workings of charitable plutocracy. Multibillionaire philanthropists use their personal wealth, their tax-exempt private foundations, and their high-profile identities as philanthropists to mold public policy to a degree not possible for other citizens. They exert this excessive influence without public input or accountability. As for the charitable donors who are trying to reshape public education according to their favorite theories or ideological preferences, they are intervening with too heavy a hand in a critical institution that belongs to the public and requires democratic control. But in any public domain, the philanthropist’s will and democratic control are often at odds.There's a long list of what Gates has said about his frustration:
In a CNBC panel, aired on May 4, 2015, and titled “If I were education czar…,” Bill Gates discussed the problems he’s had in spreading the “best practices” of charter schools throughout the United States: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.”Oh, like a mayor taking over a school board?
The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”
He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.Here's another fact that is useful to the discussion about the role of education philanthropy:
Talking to Ifill, he brushes off opponents as obstructionists who merely want to flaunt their autonomy—as if disagreeing with him were an exercise in peskiness rather than part of a necessary substantive debate.
When a baron says, “It’s my money to use as I please,” he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of every tax-exempt foundation’s wealth—39.6 percent at the top tax bracket for filing in 2016—is diverted each year from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.She ends her article with a useful set of questions:
Questioning the work of megaphilanthropists is a tricky business. Many readers of this article will be fuming in this way: Would you rather let children remain illiterate, or allow generous people to use their wealth to give them schools? Would you rather send more money to our bumbling government, or let visionary philanthropists solve society’s problems?
Here is a counterquestion: Would you rather have self-appointed social engineers—whose sole qualification is vast wealth—shape public policy according to their personal views, or try to repair American democracy?I go with democracy, every single time.