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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Philanthropic Advocacy for School Reforms

I … challenge the wisdom of giving public sanction and approval to the spending of a huge fortune ….My object here is to state as clearly and as briefly as possible why the huge philanthropic trusts, known as foundations, appear to be a menace to the welfare of society.

Frank Walsh, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 1915

Yes, a century ago, Walsh pilloried the richest man in the world who had established a foundation in his name, John D.Rockefeller, in advancing his corporate interests–then in oil, coal, and scores of other enterprises. His namesake foundation was a “moulder of public thought.”

A century later, critics are making similar charges that donors to school reform (see here and here) shape the policy agenda of districts, states, and the federal government when it comes to improving the nation’s schools.

If you think I am suggesting that donors and criticism of their charity comes around again and again, you are on the money (see here and here). The cyclical nature of philanthropic grant-making by both progressive-leaning and conservative-leaning foundations to advance different versions of urban reform–do any readers remember the Ford Foundation in the late-1960s fundingdecentralization in school reform and the harsh criticism the Foundation encountered including federal legislation in 1969?– is evident to me. As William Faulkner said: The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

How come?

There is a theory that when new organizations are born, they imprint the organizational goals, norms, and rules that last for decades as they mature and thrive even when the environment changes on them. Just like when naturalist Konrad Lorenz showed how new-born goslings saw him first and attached to him–following him everywhere for as long as they lived.


Those years in the early 20th century, then, of wealthy businessmen forming foundations to give away their fortunes to help others and getting criticized for pursuing their corporate interests of the day is where the Walsh committee’s censure of John D. Rockefeller enter the picture. Imprinted on these foundations was that wealthy donors will do what they seek to do even if goes against the public interest. Since then, legislators and critics have lambasted donors during difficult economic times, social disruption, and political divisions for not being true to their stated goals. And the first decade of the 21st century is one of those times.

Why now?

The largest donors today (Gates, Walton, Dell, Broad, Fisher, etc.) began as entrepreneurs who created wealth and have decided to focus on causes dear to them including school reform. They have shifted their attention and dollars away from individual grants scattered among state and local districts to push their version of school reform (e.g., charter schools, alternative pools of educators such as Teach for America, teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards) by making joint grants to the same entities (e.g., charter management organizations, big districts led by superintendents and school boards partial to their agenda) and national policy advocacy, that is, creating new organizations and funding existing ones such as “think tanks” that will influence legislators, educational policymakers, and the general public (e.g., New America Foundation, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute) to do the right thing.

Researchers Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder have documented the extent of what they call “convergent” funding of particular organizations between 2000 and 2010 that advance national policy agendas big donors want. In 2000, for example, 23 percent of donor money went to organizations that received funds from two or more major foundations. A decade later, 64 percent of donor money was given to organizations that received grant dollars from two or more foundations. One startling fact of “convergence” is that 13 of the 15 largest K-12 foundations gave grants to Teach for America. They concluded:

By targeting resources to a more focused set of organizations and allowing those organizations to grow stronger and more influential, foundations have likely increased their influence on education policy   (p. 193).

Recent articles on “A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools” and “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution” add heft to the above increased … influence on education policy.

Surely current foundations are politically engaged now at a national level far beyond earlier foundations were in advocating for a particular policy agenda. In doing so, this “convergence” of money and policy advocacy have unintentionally strengthened efforts to centralize national authority in advancing a particular agenda for school reform.  The previous voices of unions, parent groups, professional associations, university-based researchers, and civil rights organizations have become mere echoes of what influence they once had.

Frank Walsh, where are you?

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has publish...