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Reckhow: Philanthropy Critique Can Obscure Key Differences

image from farm4.static.flickr.comSince Diane Ravitch popularized the phrase “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” the chorus of skepticism and outright disapproval of education philanthropy has been growing.  

Much of the criticism is aimed at coordination and shared agenda priorities among major education philanthropists and federal officials on issues such as Common Core and school choice.

Liberals and conservatives have converged on some of these issues, creating strange bedfellows, such as Michelle Malkin and Susan Ohanian.

Skepticism of education philanthropy is also emerging from unexpected sources. Recent commentary on education philanthropy in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (arguably a more “philanthropy friendly” venue) by Stanley N. Katz concludes with the following:

“I find the brazenness, arrogance, and disregard for public decision making of current philanthropic attempts to influence federal policy just as dangerous to democracy as the critics of the original foundations contended so vociferously 100 years ago.”

And yet...

I have studied and written about convergent grant-making among major philanthropists and efforts to influence federal policy. My research has shown that convergence and coordination among top education philanthropists has grown in the last decade. I worry about the consequences of this trend, and I think some of the policy priorities of major philanthropists are not well supported by research.

But I also worry that some recent critiques of education philanthropy overstate a top-down, secretive, and elite-driven perspective on policy-making in education, possibly to the point of conspiracy theorizing.

The trouble with this lens is that it can quickly become an all-encompassing story explaining every new policy development in every place. Adhering to this perspective can blind one to contextual details and variations across policy issues and locations. For example, the development and adoption of the Common Core has followed a different trajectory than charter school expansion, and education policy-making in Los Angeles looks very different than New York City.

Also, critics of philanthropy often merge two separate arguments about philanthropy: 1) philanthropists are pursuing the wrong policies; 2) philanthropic secrecy and money pose threats to democracy. Lumping these criticisms together makes it easy to overlook different philanthropic priorities and different strategies. 

- Michigan State University political science professor Sarah Reckhow, author of Follow The Money

Previous posts:  The Short, Sad Story Of PENewarkSavvy Walton FoundationGates Shifts Strategy & Schools Get Smaller Share

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