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By John Thompson.

As explained in this previous post, I began David Callahan’s The Givers with a commitment to avoid confirmation biases. As he notes, plenty of teachers (like me) detest corporate school reform. But, even if Callahan had concluded that education philanthropists produced significant gains in student performance, his narrative would have raised alarms about the longterm growth of the new donor class.

Second, despite the damage done by the new edu-philanthropy, I remain an incorrigible optimist. I wasn’t prepared for such a persuasive case that a new type of donors was leading to a “benign plutocracy.” But, Callahan shows how they’ve created “a clash of philanthropic titans, with ordinary Americans on the sidelines.”

The Givers begins with the first politicized think tanks of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI may have been one of the more intellectually honest of the conservative alternatives to academic research, but it is still a shame that it didn’t abide by the rules of evidence that apply in universities.  These first generation think tanks were designed to “excel at framing the terms of public debates” and “wage big-picture ideological warfare.”

The success of right wing advocacy organizations contributed to the “income chasm” and the inequality of our “Second Gilded Age.” Federal domestic discretionary spending is the lowest in five decades, meaning that there is more need for private donations. The conservative movement won tax breaks, as well as the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. This has enabled elites to “buy megaphones that often drown out the voices of ordinary people.”

The rise of Silicon Valley prompted the growth of what ProPublica’s Jesse Eisenberg called “a society of oligarchs.” I used to think it is an exaggeration to speak of “new Silicon Valley overlords.” After all, the tech world is collaborative as well as competitive.

At first, I thought it was good news that younger donors want to both start earlier and move faster “amplifying the influence of the tech philanthropists.”  I assumed those smart entrepreneurs would see the “obvious risks when star business leaders turn to philanthropy.” Surely they would recognize that, “Just because you’ve built a Fortune 500 company … doesn’t mean you’ll have the faintest clue about helping third-graders learn to read or bringing drinking wells to Africa”

Bill Gates is the highest profile philanthropist of our time, and the efficacy of his global strategy has been debated. Not being an expert, I defer to the researchers who say he has learned through that experience. The Gates Foundation’s unforced errors in education philanthropy, as well as its reluctance to listen to critics, could have been a semi-isolated example of hubris.

As Callahan explains, “Bill Gates sees education as the primary building block for equal opportunity.”  Such a belief should have prompted him to conduct serious research on his untested preferences before helping to impose them on 45 states. Gates sees himself as a technocrat, while we critics of his foundation see him “as wielding way too much power – in way too cavalier a fashion.” In Callahan’s balanced view, “Gates money may have changed policies and practices, but that’s not the same as changing outcomes.” The billionaire may now be rethinking his overreach but “Gates is not the first technocratic philanthropist to plead dumb when it comes to political clout.”

In 2010, when Gates and Warren Buffett announced the “Giving Pledge,” Gates’ approach to improving teacher quality was on its ways toward failure, but I remained oblivious to the danger of an alliance of billionaires committed to giving away their money. Had it been Susie Buffett, George Kaiser, or Priscilla Chan leading the effort, I’d have welcomed it.  Back then, I also held out hope that Gates would repudiate his worse mistakes.

Had Gates et. al known enough about schools to play out the chess game, they would have realized that the imposition of Common Core testing, at the same time as value-added teacher evaluations were being mandated, would create a train wreck. Moreover, expanding a high stakes testing regime in high-poverty schools, while scaling up an unfair competition between neighborhood schools and charters, was bound to damage the students and teachers in poor schools. Gates should have known that drill and kill malpractice would be disproportionately imposed on the poorest children of color. How could he not understand that educators would be duty-bound to fight back, meaning that his technocratic micromanaging would be doomed, at least in terms of improving schools as opposed to privatizing them?

The “Billionaires Boys Club” seemed to take personal offence at the pushback. The result was their worst edu-philanthropic mistake; they funded expensive public relations campaigns that demonized opponents. As Callahan says, elites doubled down on “orchestrating public conversations.”  Philanthropists responded to defeats by investing even more in “astroturf” think tanks and “citizen” groups, to generate buzz and “momentum.” Gates and his colleagues made multimillion dollar media grants to news organizations. The beleaguered Los Angeles Times was given $800,000 for education coverage “despite the obvious conflict of interest posed by the gift.”  As Callahan comments, on a daily basis, The 74 was “banging the drum for charter schools and other reforms.”

Now, it is clear that “philanthropy is playing a growing role in this feedback loop, as more givers with deeper pockets bankroll think tanks that have the ear of top officials.” And the education debacle wasn’t the worst of it. As Callahan concludes:

The heavy-handedness of K-12 funders in recent years has offered a showcase of big philanthropy’s dark side. Their grandiose plans have often failed to anticipate realities on the ground, created intense polarization, and alienated the stakeholders who are essential to successful schools – like teachers. 

But, what if it this tumult was just an example of “an expansion of the kind of sophisticated elite power that so many Americans find unnerving?”

Sadly, Callahan then describes an even greater set of dangers which grew out of the “legion of like-minded donors.”  One frightening legacy of this new philanthropic campaign was described in the 2014 New York Times front-page article, “Billionaires with Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science.” An analyst said, “The practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”

Callahan observes, “An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale giving in an era when it already has too much clout. Things are going to get worse, too.”  He describes a scenario where the children of today’s philanthropists inherit their parents’ organizations’ money and become an even more disconnected elite. This scenario makes it “easy to feel fatalistic about a future ever more dominated by wealthy people.”

Warren Buffett described such a timeless danger, “I don’t think that, as a generation, as a society, we want to confer blessings on generation after generation … because someone in the far distant past happened to amass great sum of wealth.” But what if the new philanthropy class creates a 21st century version of such an oligarchy?

Callahan also offers some solace to besieged optimists like me, offering potential solutions, noting that philanthropy is “one of America’s greatest inventions.” If reformed, it “would remain a powerful force for solving problems and improving society. But it wouldn’t come to trump this nation’s more important invention: democracy.”

What do you think? Am I alone in once believing that the new generation of philanthropists would be a constructive force? Will it get worse? What happens when our private businesses elites create a twin set of oligarchies for controlling our society?

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Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

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