Friday, October 25, 2013


from the AALA Weekly Update for the week of October 28, 2013 |

24 October, 2013  ::  Much has been written about the role that large foundations are starting to play in education in general and LAUSD in particular. More and more, the policy agenda of Broad, Gates, Walton and other foundations is being forced on educators despite their misgiving and the lack of supportive research. Noted educators are speaking out daily about the privatization of education that is being foisted on the public under the guise of education reform. But how did we get here? How did these large foundations start wielding so much power? We have done some research.

Big philanthropy began in the early twentieth century as a new entity unlike the traditional charity, largely because of the huge assets and the governance structure. These new foundations were affiliated with no religious denomination and were basically tax-exempt private corporations working for the public good. Detractors said they were merely a ploy to secure the wealth and improve the reputations of business moguls. The first three large foundations to receive their charters were the Russell Sage Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. The early foundations focused on social problems, sponsoring research, developing a remedy and often, paying for implementation. One hundred years later, they are still trying to solve what the trustees see as a problem and are mostly free to do what they want. It has been said that this private sector is publicly subsidized, because the foundations are traditionally tax-exempt organizations - in essence, diverting funds from the public treasury.

Today, big philanthropy in the United States is thriving and more powerful than ever. There are over sixty-seven with assets over $1 billion each. Some are overseen by living donors, some of the 1 percent who have made enormous corporate fortunes. Initially, large foundations would seek experts to do independent research and propose ways of achieving goals, but today, more often than not, they fund like-minded researchers who design studies to support their ideas. Because grantees want to retain their funding, foundation leadership usually never receives critical feedback and then proceeds to fund media outlets that provide programming that indoctrinates the public as well.

For the last decade, big philanthropy has been focusing on public education (Gates, Broad, Arnold, Walton, Anschutz, Dell, Hewlett foundations) aiming to make it function more like the private sector. They have argued that if schools were run like businesses, the achievement gaps would be eliminated and millions have been spent to prove their case. They funnel more than $1 billion into education reform each year and this is discretionary spendingnot tied to any guidelines, regulations, public policies or laws. Their grants become leverage for districts to adopt their agendas even when seasoned educators are leery. In an article in Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barken reports that large foundations are “…on a surreptitious campaign to generate support for…teaching reforms, …create bogus grassroots activity to increase the number of privately managed charter schools, …exert influence by making grant money contingent on a specific person remaining in a specific office and … [to pay] the salaries of public officials hired to implement education reforms.”

The article discusses such issues as: (1) Parent Revolution (funded by Walton, Gates, Arnold, Broad, et. al) and its efforts in California and other states; (2) a grant to New Jersey’s Board of Education by the Broad Foundation that stipulated that Governor Chris Christie remain in office; (3) the more than a dozen senior staff members (over the last few years) in LAUSD funded by the Wasserman, Walton, Broad, Ford and Hewlett foundations; (4) the Broad Superintendent’s Academy; and (5) grants to the Washington, D.C. schools that required teachers to ratify a contract and Superintendent Michelle Rhee to remain for five years (How could she ethically accept a grant that was contingent on her continued employment?). A Los Angeles Times editorial (January 12, 2010) questioned, “At what point do financial gifts begin reshaping public decision making to fit a private agenda? ...Educators and the public, not individual philanthropists, should set the agenda for schools.”

We, at AALA, also query the role of private foundations in public education and on the decision making that has led to many questionable policies. We agree with Dr. Diane Ravitch that school district leadership, from principals to superintendent, should come from those experienced in the field; master teachers who became administrators who moved up the ranks, broadening their knowledge, skills and experiential base along the way, not those who have been anointed or selected by a private foundation. There are no magic potionsnot testing, not technology, not scripted lessons, not evaluations tied to test scores, not self-righteous declarationsthat will improve public education. Improvement requires the consistent, collaborative, committed efforts of society as a whole to eradicate childhood poverty and provide true opportunity for all.

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