How mega-foundations are undermining our public schools and eating away at our democracy
Reader: it is well established that the richest Americans have billions of ideas for how to improve our failed and failing public schools. In fact, by the time you finish reading this sentence, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg and the Walton family will have generated one new school improvement idea each, not to mention a substantial amount of interest on their substantial fortunes. But not everyone is convinced that the growing influence of these “philanthro-barons” over our schools and our democracy is such a great development. In a new article entitled “Plutocrats at Work” writer Joanne Barkan paints a disturbing picture of mega-philanthropy gone wild. EduShyster recently interviewed Barkan to find out why she’s so concerned about the new breed of philanthro-baron.
EduShyster: You write that the original big philanthropies like Carnegie and Rockefeller were kept on a pretty tight leash. What’s different about today’s breed of mega-philanthropists?
Barkan: When the original philanthropies were being set up in the early 20th century, the big fear was that they would be centers of plutocratic power that undermined democracy. People were so wary then and that wariness really did serve to keep the big philanthropies on a kind of leash. Also, people like Rockefeller and Carnegie were aware that their money could create a lot of resentment and this was something that really concerned them. Today our mega-philanthropists like the Waltons, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg and Eli Broad expect to be celebrated for their money. They believe that the fact that they have money gives them special privileges and power.
ES: You describe hubris as the occupational disorder of the philanthro-baron. But I wonder if there’s a unique brand of hubris of the tech billionaire, call it *hubris 2.0*?
Barkan: There does seem to be a special hubris that comes from people who make their money when they’re really young, which these days usually means high-tech. It leads to the mentality of: “I can do anything because I’m brilliant.” And it leads to the belief that you can take what worked in your business, or what you learned about software programming, and just translate that to fix a variety of problems that are of a completely different nature and much more complex.
ES: You write that today’s mega-philanthropists are drawn to mega-challenges and that that in itself creates mega-problems for the rest of us.
Barkan: When it’s the kind of philanthropy that wants to solve big problems and wants to solve them quickly, it means that failure is a big failure. That’s really different than testing a small project to see if it works. And mega-philanthropists are never responsible for cleaning up the mess they make. Take Gates’ small schools project, for example. Some of those schools were ripped apart; chaos was created. Then Bill and Melinda hold a press conference to say they’re moving on. But there were schools that were decimated and some of those kids had their education completely interrupted. It’s noteworthy that the Gates Foundation’s tagline for itself is “impatient optimists.” I think ‘cockeyed optimists’ is probably more accurate. But it’s that impatience that produces so many problems.
ES: I love your line about sycophancy being built into the very structure of philanthropy. You say that philanthropists and foundation executives almost never receive critical feedback. So do they not realize that the $1 billion a year they’re spending on education reform isn’t exactly producing a huge ROI, as an edupreneur might say?
Barkan: Once upon a time these mega-foundations would set a goal and then seek out experts to do independent research to help them figure out how to achieve it. But that’s really fallen by the wayside. Today the foundations start with a preconceived notion about the social problem and its solution. And they fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas. It’s very much as though a big philanthropist who has never been to the ballet decides to back a ballet company and says you can have all of this money—it will save your company. But there are a few rules: you can only perform Swan Lake, the orchestra can only play violins and all of your dancers have to be below 5’5”. None of this makes any sense but the “study” that the philanthropist is also funding will show that it’s a success.
ES: You also write about the extensive resources that big philanthropy spends to gin up *grassroots* support for education reform. I recently came across a press release from the Minnesota chapter of Educators for Excellence, which has 365 members yet somehow has one of the most expensive firms in the country, SDKKnickerbocker, handling its public relations.
Barkan: That’s a classic example. I write about how Gates hired Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) to set up groups across the country to promote teacher evaluation plans. RPA’s proposal was leaked and it really reads like the astro-turfer’s guide to ginning up support out of nothing. Their recommendations were things like “The group will be expected to use billboards.” How many grassroots groups do you know with the budget to pay for billboards? Or you’ll be expected to hire professionals to conduct focus groups for you to shape your message in order to identify the exact wording that will pull people in. The whole thing has become commercial and also so cynical. I suppose you could say that it’s exactly the way we run all of our political campaigns. It’s marketing as opposed to political discussion.
ES: Are you a bad person if you accept money from, say, Bill Gates?
Barkan: You mean how should would we feel if a project we like accepts money from Gates? This is a basic structural problem with philanthropy and public policy and the idea of *doing good as you see fit.* We like to see the projects we like funded. We don’t like it when someone with ideas we consider bad gets funded. It becomes subjective and there isn’t a level playing field. Ideally you would want this kind of public policy experiment done carefully through an entity with a thoroughly democratic governance that’s responsible to its citizens. There’s a structural problem with private philanthropy. And when philanthropies become huge and political and aggressive, that structural problem becomes huge. In a free society you have to begin to implement the reforms I list at the end of my article. At least then you can begin to rein in the plutocracy.
Joanne Barkan has written extensively on the education reform movement and big philanthropy. Read more of her work here.