Venture philanthropy is the name given to wealthy people who made their fortune through entrepreneurship and venture capitalism and are now heavily funding education initiatives. Invested in education has increased since 2000 (Reckhow & Snyder, 2014). That’s great, right? Not exactly. Today’s philanthropists are very political. There are two specific ways venture philanthropy has hurt education: a) undermining of educators, and b) undermining of democracy.
The three major venture philanthropists whose foundations are involved in education are Gates, Broad, and Walton. While these three men have different political affiliations, they all made their money through business and believe in using the business model in education (Reckhow & Snyder, 2014). Their money has made them powerful. These men are not education experts nor education professionals, yet their opinions are influencing education policy because they are powerful. This undermines the professional status of educators. Scott (2009) reports, “A recent study that asked policy makers to rank most influential individuals in education policy found that Bill Gates was first, before the U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings” (p. 128). Bill Gates may be a smart business person, but this does not make him qualified to lead our nation’s schools. Because of their business backgrounds, venture philanthropists have catapulted market-based reforms based on business models.
In business, productivity not relationship matters. Educational psychology research is clear that in education, relationship is everything. An example of how a venture philanthropist undermined teachers is the small schools initiative. A big-name foundation took over the teacher-initiated small school movement in Chicago (Lipman, 2011). The original movement was about limiting the number of people in a school so that people could really get to know each other. The movement was also about teacher autonomy. If a teacher really knows his or her students, he or she can make the appropriate professional judgments about how to best serve those students. However, when the foundation came in, the small school movement became about standardization and replicability (Lipman, 2011). The irony is that those two words standardization and replicability scream industrial period. School reform is supposed to move education from an industrialization economy to our knowledge-based economy. The Gates Foundation gave East Wake High School (where I taught) $1M grant to become four academies rather than 1 large institution. Each academy had a theme and a principal and the students stayed in that academy for 4 years. This meant that big expenses like technology, the media center, football and band could remain shared between the academies but the principals would have a chance to get to know all of the teachers and the students. I thought it was a great idea but it didn’t work. East Wake remained at the bottom of Wake County test scores. Lipman’s analysis of why the small schools initiative didn’t work makes sense. This next year, East Wake will become one school again, but Knightdale High will become four small academies (Hui, 2015). This would make a great education policy case study for anyone interested. East Wake and Knightdale are neighbor schools and serve similar populations. I know funding was the reason behind the first change. I wonder if funding is the reason behind the changes now.
The second way venture philanthropy has hurt education is undermining democracy. Democracy gives each person an equal voice, but with their deep pockets, venture philanthropists have an amplified voice. Rather than schools and teachers being accountable to community members, venture philanthropists push quantifiable measurables for accountability. Such measurables are part of market-based reforms. Scott (2009) aptly summarizes the key issue. “Wealth that comes largely from favorable public policies is not directed into mostly tax-exempt foundations, where trustees and philanthropists directly shape public policy for the poor, without public deliberative process that might have been invoke over school reform policies were that money in the public coffers” (p. 128). These philanthropists who push for accountability are not accountable to anyone. They can, and they have, pulled their resources, leaving communities to deal with the consequences (Lipman, 2011). These wealthy men are making decisions based upon what they think, not based upon experts’ research or upon public consensus. However, the consequences are paid by the education community and marginalized students.
I believe that philanthropists and donors have a right to know how the money they gave was spent and can even have strings attached if they so desire. I also believe that most people have good intentions when getting involved in education politics. It’s just that venture philanthropists have so much money which means so much influence that an unintended consequence can be local educators and community members being bypassed on decisions. The philanthropists making the decisions do not suffer the consequences if the experiment fails, the community does. All I am saying is that the people need a real voice in the decisions about their local schools. Teachers may not be productive based on test scores, but they know what their kids really need. Democracy might not be efficient, but it’s what our country is built upon.
Hui, (2015). Changes proposed for Eastern Wake schools. News & Observer. Retrieved from http://www.newsobserver.com/2015/01/12/4471314_changes-proposed-for-eastern-wake.html?rh=1
Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the rights to the city. New York: Routledge.
Reckhow, S. & Snyder, J. W. (2014). The expanding role of philanthropy in education politics. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 186-195.
Scott, J. (2009). The politics of venture philanthropy in charter school policy and advocacy. Educational Policy, 23(1), 106-136.