School Funding

Yes, Let’s Follow the Money: The Myths of Billionaire-Funded Education Reform

A growing amount of scrutiny is paid to the roughly $4 billion private philanthropies give to public K-12 education annually. Such attention is understandable—even if the amount is dwarfed by the $600 billion in local, state, and federal dollars taxpayers spend every year on public schools. We should be talking about the sway the very rich can have over national policy. But if “follow the money” is now our mantra, we also need to ask what $600 billion has gotten us if our schools cannot properly educate black, brown, low-income and disabled children—if our system cannot figure out a way to spend that money fairly in a way that does not penalize children most at risk. In a previous life, I was a journalist. For eight years, I reported for The Chronicle of Philanthropy on the charitable giving of the wealthy. Yes, I interviewed and wrote about the 1 percenters and in some cases, they were closer to the .000001 percenters. Over time, I became frustrated, even disheartened, about the institutions that received the lion’s share of large donations: hospitals, colleges and universities, especially elite schools such as Harvard. According to the Council for Aid to Education, colleges and universities received $33.8 billion in charitable contributions during the 2013 fiscal year. Rare was the multi-million dollar gift that went to support social services or public K-12 education. Nonprofit Quarterly reported that in a survey of high-net-worth donors, 29 percent of all giving was directed to education with higher education at 22.9 percent and K-12 education at 4.1 percent. If it seems as if only a handful of billionaires are bankrolling causes in education, it’s because there are few people with net worths of this scale willing to devote so much time and money to such an unsexy cause. The rewards would be much faster if they stopped at having a building named after them instead of spending years quietly supporting education wonks and teachers to create the Common Core. In my previous career, I never encountered a billionaire whose source of wealth originated in public K-12 education (finance, technology, oil, and real estate tended to be their wheelhouses). There are far easier ways to make money than in education—say, day trading or becoming the next Daniel Plainview (for all you “There Will be Blood” oil baron fans). If these people wanted to hold on to more of their fortunes, they would be better off funneling it into offshore accounts rather than giving it away to schools that serve mainly poor children, far from a money-making venture. Reform-minded philanthropists have made investments that are paying dividends for disadvantaged children for rather modest sums compared to what the public spends. That’s an excellent value proposition, something we don’t come across often enough in traditional public schooling. The question I would like to pose to those who are quick to tag wealthy people with the “corporate reform” label is this: What would you rather have these people spend their money on? Highly-selective universities with low socioeconomic diversity and hefty endowments? Hospitals that don’t provide enough charity care and leave people saddled with six-figure medical bills? Renovating a concert hall patronized primarily by the affluent? Fixing poverty, I imagine, would be their answer, although one would be hard pressed to devise a solution that did not involve education. Another irony here is that some of those opposing education reform benefit from the philanthropic largesse of the very people they revile. Diane Ravitch, the subject of my previous post, is a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. That would be Michael Steinhardt, a hedge fund manager who gave $20 million to the school that bears his name. The Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations may have their roots in an era of economic injustice, but it’s hard to dispute the good work these organizations have carried out in studying racism and poverty, building libraries, financing social justice groups, or supporting the research of academic scholars. A host of institutions spanning the arts, science, education, etc., are the regular beneficiaries of corporate and private philanthropic support. If those who vehemently oppose education reform would like to rid themselves of the taint of corporate and philanthropic money, they should return the donations they’ve received to support their research, their speaking fees, or the salaries they earn writing for publications such as The Washington Post, which is owned by charter supporter Jeff Bezos and publishes charter opponent Valerie Strauss. Until then, let he who is without a Macbook running Microsoft Office and ordering off Amazon cast the first stone.  
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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