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Philanthropists Gone Wild: A Cautionary Tale

Research & Commentary
May 15, 2011

by Sam Pizzigati

Billionaire cash contributions have been cascading into America’s most troubled school districts. Unfortunately, so have billionaire perspectives on education.

Philanthropists can be bullies. They can — and do — use their fortunes to bend public institutions to their own private will. Last week, for instance, we learned that right-wing billionaire Charles Koch is wielding veto power over faculty hires at a public university, Florida State, where he’s bankrolling economics courses.

That arrangement, notes the St. Petersburg Times, directly violates “a hallmark of academic freedom,” the notion that universities must retain the power to choose professors “without outside interference.”

But wealthy donors don’t have to swing sharp elbows — like Charles Koch — to bully. Indeed, the findings from a new study on billionaire philanthropy and public education suggest a deeply more troubling reality: Billionaire charity can make democratic give-and-take — and thoughtful public policy — next to impossible.

The researchers behind this new Center for Public Integrity study had a simple goal. They knew that billionaire cash has been rushing into urban schools over the last decade, $4.4 billion from Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Eli Broad, and the Wal-Mart Waltons alone. Their question: What impact have these billions had?

The Center researchers examined records from the ten major urban school systems, from New York to Oakland, where billionaire dollars have concentrated. And they found that the billionaire dollars, in the end, didn’t do much.

The districts studied did somewhat improve student performance faster than other districts in their states, but “only 60 percent of the time.” Test scores in some districts awash in billionaire dollars actually went backwards. In one district, Washington, D.C., scores showed appreciable gains, but, the Center study notes, these scores “have lately come under investigation, amid suspicions of cheating.”

Why such lackluster results? Why didn’t the billionaire dollars produce more impressive outcomes? The Center study offers some clues.

All those billionaire dollars, the study relates, didn’t pour into projects and programs that local educators and their communities had identified. They poured instead into the pet projects of the billionaires.

In fact, most of the billionaires seemed to view the local democratic decision-making process as more obstacle than anything else. They celebrated their capacity, as Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad put it, “to take risks that government is not willing to do” — and even derided the importance of listening to local stakeholders.

“The fact that I don’t concern myself about criticism or pushback helps,” Broad boasted to the Center’s researchers.

This attitude shouldn’t come as any surprise. Billionaire execs, in their corporate empires, don’t have to tolerate pushback. They see no reason why this intolerance can’t work in philanthropy either.

“The business titans entered the education arena,” the Center for Public Integrity researchers would conclude, “convinced that America’s schools would benefit greatly from the tools of the boardroom.”

America’s schools, the billionaires believed, needed principals operating like CEOs. Teachers needed to be “paid for performance,” they insisted, and districts needed more “charter schools” free from “government monopoly” regulation.

None of these corporate “answers” for education’s problems rest on research data culled from real school and classroom experience. “Merit-pay” schemes for teachers, in the research literature, have an inglorious history. Charter schools, for their part, have produced no grand advances in student performance.

That didn’t stop the billionaires from dumping dollars, by the billions, into merit pay and charter school initiatives. And the failure of those billions to make any significant impact doesn’t seem to have humbled either the billionaires or their philanthropic major domos. They’re all still assuming their ideas represent “best practice” and essentially admit to only one failure: impatience.

“It’s so hard in this country to spread good practice,” as one billionaire foundation executive told the Center for Public Integrity research team. “When we started funding, we hoped it would spread more readily.”

The real failure here appears to go much deeper. Our democratic faith rests on the assumption that we do better, as a society, when we all together discuss, debate, and decide the solutions to our problems. Billion-dollar philanthropy short-circuits that discussion, debate, and democratic decision making.

Still, in these tough economic times, can we possibly afford to do without the dollars billionaires have to offer? Of course not.

We certainly do need billionaire dollars in education. But we shouldn’t need to depend on philanthropic whims to get those dollars put to the public good. We have, after all, a time-tested democratic alternative. Progressive taxation.

Let’s try it.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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