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May 15, 2013 at 8:20 AM

Following the money in public education

Gabriel Campanario/The Seattle Times

Gabriel Campanario/The Seattle Times

A major study of public education philanthropy found that education reforms have been accompanied over the last decade by a shift in financial support from private foundations. The biggest example is the shift of philanthropic dollars from traditional public schools to charter schools, a finding guaranteed to fuel flames in the charter vs. traditional public schools debate.

The Michigan State University-led study tracked grants over a 10-year period from 15 U.S. foundations that give the most money to K-12 education.

“Not only are they giving more, but they are giving more, faster, and we find that very interesting,” one of the studies co-authors, Jeffrey W. Snyder told Education Week.

“Beyond Grantmaking: Philanthropic Foundations as Agents of Change and Institutional Entrepreneurs” was released at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco last week. I wrote about that meeting in this column. The research is thick but fascinating because of the power of philanthropic foundations to make social change. Total assets of the United States’ 76,000 foundations has grown from an estimated $272 billion in 1995 to $625 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2012, according to the Urban Institute. How that money influences, and improves, social conditions is worthy of ongoing attention.

But any takeaway that philanthropy is a corrupting influence is too simplistic a view. Nor do I think the authors intend for their research to be used to make that narrow point. The issue is far more complex. Funders are becoming much more active in shaping how their money affects change. They are holding themselves accountable for results.  I would warn against rushing to judge this shift. The impact of private funding, particularly from large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is far more complex than a good versus bad paradigm allows. Here’s one reason why.

Education Week, one of the best sources for independent education journalism, receives support from some of the biggest foundations - the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Wallace Foundation (formerly the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds), the Walton Family Foundation and yes, the Gates Foundation. That’s not a bad thing. It merely underscores the intricate web of philanthropy and social change.

For broader, historical context, here are a few examples of social change spurred by foundations. One example is the Olin Foundation, credited (or blamed) with transforming American law schools in the 1960s and 1970s by helping to establish the “law and economics” intellectual school, an anchor of the conservative legal movement. Olin’s effort was a reaction in part, the Beyond Grantmaking study notes, to the Ford Foundation’s support of “progressive law school clinics and poverty law curricula.”

Another is the Carnegie and Ford Foundations, credited with using their financial influence to elevate the status of management education in business schools. By funding doctoral fellowships, conferences for business school leaders and  faculty research in a handful of business schools, they got nearly all of them to adopt the foundations’ preferred standards.

Comments | Topics: 3to23, children, Education


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