By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Funding with strings attached: How corporate foundations are shaping education policy.
A troubling power shift is occurring in public education: Corporations are wielding greater and greater influence over education policy and how the federal government funds public education. Corporate dollars are increasingly swaying policymakers to enact experimental education reforms - many of which are unproven, and some of which actually harm our schools rather than help them.
Reforms like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top, which provides misguided mandates such as paying teachers based on student test scores and creating charters that operate independently of local school boards, are a result of lobbying by corporate foundations controlled by wealthy benefactors such as Eli Broad, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Walton family. It's no surprise that Duncan's top officials come from the ranks of corporate foundations which, in the name of philanthropy, promote strict accountability measures that punish our schools rather than help them.
While the money from corporations is intended as a charitable donation, the ideology behind them - for the most part with the goal of running schools like a business - doesn't always mean the best results for our public schools. After all, students aren't widgets to be bought and sold. They come with disparate abilities and needs and sometimes require individualized attention. And because in this harsh economic climate school districts are especially desperate for money - and corporate philanthropists generally have very deep pockets - schools may take donations without asking important questions. Many reforms imposed by foundations run counter to the aim of providing quality public education to all children in all California schools.
Back in March 2004, California Educator asked an important question in an article titled "Is it philanthropy? Or corporate meddling?" Concerns were voiced about corporate foundation grants with strings attached for privatized charters, scripted learning, and the breakup of large schools into small schools. The story also took a critical look at the role corporate foundations play in training administrators from the private sector to govern schools in a top-down, authoritarian style. Six years later, many of those concerns have been justified: Corporate grants for charter schools have hurt public schools; the breakup of large schools into small schools has not been cost-effective; and foundation-trained administrators are causing problems.
The question "Is it philanthropy or corporate meddling?" is still extremely relevant today, as many of the issues faced by public schools - dwindling funds, lack of academic freedom, and widespread charter proliferation - have been greatly influenced by foundations. And the influence they wield is growing, despite a poor track record of previous reforms.
Of course, it should be noted that not all foundation grants come with insidious strings attached. CTA and NEA have foundations that do great, innovative work for our schools. And many other foundations also exist that have been exceptionally generous in providing money to schools in this country. But quite often corporate foundations are financing the fad of the moment, advancing a political agenda or attaching substantial strings to their generosity.
For the purposes of this feature, we've chosen to focus on the Broad, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Walton Family foundations - groups that are having increasing influence on education policy. The following stories revisit some of the schools we reported on in 2004 and explore the mounting impact of corporate foundations on public education.
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Related Tags: Volume 15 Issue 1, Educator Feature, Inside Educator, Budget, Charter schools, Cuts, Educator, Foundation, Funding, Grants,