foundations and k-12 education

Last fall, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an article in Philanthropy that was largely critical of the “new” education funders: especially the Bill & Melinda T. Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Milken Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. According to his article, the “old” funders used to assume that education needed more money, so they gave cash to schools (or to students). The “new” funders believe, in contrast, that ordinary grants won’t make much difference, because total foundation support for education amounts to less than $2 billion, compared to about $427 billion in public funds for k-12 schools. (These figures come from Jay Greene’s paper). Thus the “new” funders aim to use their money as leverage to change education policy.

Their ideologies and strategies are diverse. Some fund charter schools, some give school systems incentives to introduce merit pay, and some subsidize transitions to small schools. In his article, Hess endorsed the idea of trying to change policies, but he argued that the new funders are not particularly effective. Yesterday, AEI held a conference that gave a wide variety of speakers a chance to address Hess’ thesis. (Philanthropy also gave Hess’ targets a chance to respond.) I was only able to attend the AEI event briefly, but the papers are online.

People certainly disagree about what changes we should be trying to effect in school systems. But even if we agreed about the desirable changes, there would still be a debate about philanthropy’s proper role. Either,

a) Given the relatively small amount of money available to philanthropy and the deep problems evident in public school systems, funders throw their money away if they merely support schools. They are obligated to use their resources as leverage to achieve fundamental changes in educational policy.

or …

b) Public schools are controlled by the public through elections. It is undemocratic for rich organizations to try to change school policies. This is also a dangerous approach, since foundations have often been deeply misguided. For example, the current effort to create small high schools, which I find attractive, can be seen as a response to the effort to create large schools in the 1950s. Both efforts were heavily funded by precisely the same foundations.

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