Like many other countries, the United States has seen seemingly endless discussion about privatization of education. America’s charter schools, for instance, which inspired similar approaches in New Zealand, Liberia, Canada and elsewhere, have been criticized as an effort to privatize public education by transferring public funding to non-state actors. Charter schools, which first emerged three decades ago, now enroll almost 3.5 million students in the US, and educate near or even vast majorities of students in major cities such as San Antonio, Kansas City, Detroit, Washington and New Orleans. At the same time, the voucher movement has proliferated in the US despite concerns about public funding being transferred to private schools, with almost 60 such programs being established since the US Supreme Court allowed for these programs in 2002.
But despite all the debates about whether such moves constitute privatization, surprisingly little attention has been paid to another dimension: the privatization of education policymaking itself. The United States offers some cautionary tales on that issue, particularly as some apparently well-intended philanthropists have leveraged their great wealth to impose their own vision of public education, and in doing so have supplanted both evidence-based expertise and democratic governance. Here I consider the evolution of edu-philanthropy in education in the US, focusing on factors that are shaping evidence and policymaking.
Certainly, philanthropists have been involved in US education for decades, with the Carnegie, Ford and other fortunes leveled at improving public schooling, often through support for education research. However, rather than funding institutions and evidence creation out of a sense of noblesse oblige, current education philanthropists are taking more direct control, managing their “giving” instead as targeted investments in school models often intended as alternatives to public schooling. It is notable that the largest and most influential private funders focused on education all derived immense wealth from industry and sales, and most accumulated these fortunes themselves (as opposed to inheritance). So it’s likely not surprising that they tend to bring business sensibilities to their efforts to reform schooling, and thus to see schooling as a business they can improve.
But perhaps more importantly, they also seem to bring those business sensibilities to public policymaking. In an age of venture philanthropy and impact giving, many of these funders often create the institutional arrangements in governance that allow their agendas for education to advance. This could be by pouring private resources into democratic channels. After voters and their representatives had rejected charter schools in his home state of Washington, Bill Gates was instrumental in getting Initiative 1240 passed with an almost $11 million effort he funded along with donations from some of the other major edu-philanthropists and tech elites. As part of this effort, a Gates-funded university center published a favorable report on charters and provided media support.
But since school reform has generally not successfully advanced through direct democratic measures, these philanthropists have exerted private influence over public education policymaking through other means, including in legislative, bureaucratic and governance arenas. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook fortune supported a massive reconfiguration of the public schools in Newark, bypassing elected representation and democratic school governance in favor of appointed officials favorable to Zuckerberg’s agenda and a shift towards charter schools. Gates money was instrumental in implementing the controversial Common Core Standards, developing the plan, making donations to key players, and then pushing governments to get on board. Philanthropic funded groups such as Education Pioneers and Leadership for Educational Equity actually provide the income for individuals they place in governments. And of course, in fashioning optimal institutional arrangements, edu-philanthropists also fund the production and accumulation of evidence favorable to their agenda, funding supportive think tanks and university centers, or consultants, as happened with much of Zuckerberg’s money in Newark.
Certainly, as the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors also warns, there are concerns about these new forms of private education philanthropy further supplanting democratic control over education policymaking — a trend evident in the removal of elected school leadership in places such as New Orleans, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, and Newark, as well as the rise of unelected governance through private charter boards, for instance.
Although supporters point to the resources and business acumen that such ventures bring to state-administered education, they often ignore important questions about control, expertise, and impact. In particular, shifting toward a more privatized model of public policymaking sidelines two other important voices in education. First, while business tycoons may have demonstrated admirable qualities of intelligence and risk-taking in accumulating their wealth, those skills do not necessarily transfer to other sectors, where trained experts often have better, evidence-based insights into the problems and effective remedies facing schools. As a related example from another field, Sonia Shah points out how the Gates Foundation — while well-intentioned — overrode the expert advice of epidemiologists and health officials in pursuing global anti-malaria efforts.
Second, privatization of public policymaking further disenfranchises marginalized communities who become the subjects of philanthropists’ experiments, even if those efforts are well-intended. These reform agendas are almost exclusively levelled at disadvantaged and minority communities, who tend to have the poorest schools. The cavalier attitude of trying out new education models on these populations was unfortunately expressed quite succinctly by Bill Gates when he noted that “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”
How did we get to this current situation? While there are a number of factors shaping the move toward privatization of public policymaking in education, three in particular are worth noting:
- Decline in trust in institutions: There has been a general erosion of trust in institutions over the last couple of decades. For instance, Americans’ trust in their state governments to handle problems has declined from 80% in 1998 to 57% now. Much of this is associated with years of political attacks on the effectiveness and even legitimacy of public schooling, bureaucracies, elected offices, universities and other sources of expertise.
- Economic polarization and wealth-worship: The US has seen a remarkable rise in economic inequality since the 1970s, with lower-income families getting a smaller share of the rewards while the fortunes of elites, often enabled by predatory business practices and favorable tax policies, have exploded. The wealthiest 10% of Americans own almost three-quarters of the country’s wealth. But even as communities suffer from the business and policy decisions of business elites who turn to philanthropy, these same business leaders are often held up as brilliant, even heroic innovators and risk-takers who deserve elite control over policy issues.
- Rise of alternative realities: The decline of established institutions has opened spaces for private interests to promote alternative facts, “experts,” and evidence-free perspectives. In particular, digital communications and new media entities — often funded by important philanthropies — create their own sets of organizations that promote alternative “truths” on issues such as threats, crises and solutions for schooling.
The 2021/2 GEM Report provides some excellent guidance for assuring that “all stakeholders” be afforded “equal opportunity to shape the public debate in education.” Noting that it should not be only those with power influencing policy, the Report wisely admonishes governments to regulate efforts by vested interests to shape policy.
But it is also important to point out that, although — as the report indicates — it is difficult to distinguish state and non-state actors, that is partly due to the fact that non-state actors such as edu-philanthropists are increasingly co-opting public functions and authority. That is, this blurring of the boundaries between private actors and the public sectors is partly by design, as an apparent strategy orchestrated by leading philanthropists. Indeed, if governments are already overly influenced by such vested interests, it is unlikely that they are ideally positioned to regulate those interests. And not all “vested interests” are equal: teachers, education professionals, and trained experts typically have more accurate assessments of the challenges and potential solutions facing schools than do some external actors with no experience in the field.
Nevertheless, in lieu of a better way to limit undue influence from private interests, particular scrutiny should be paid to those who accumulated fortunes in the private sector, often through predatory practices, who then claim the right to reimagine education in their own image — even if they are well-intentioned.