When Foundations Focus on Top-Down Reform

In 2005, I conducted original research on a question that, to my mind, had not been satisfactorily examined. I tried to gauge and categorize how much total philanthropic giving there was to public education. I was surprised to discover that, relative to the vast public expenditures on K–12 education, philanthropic contributions were remarkably small—amounting to about one-third of 1 percent of total school spending. My paper was published in Rick Hess’ book With the Best of Intentions, and it concluded that trying to reshape public education through the sheer financial force of philanthropic dollars was futile—like pouring buckets of water into the sea. If philanthropists aspired to have a transformative effect on public education, they would have to use their limited resources to convince public authorities to redirect how public monies were spent.

In her new book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, Sarah Reckhow picks up where I left off. She provides a much deeper and quite thorough consideration of the potential and pitfalls of philanthropic giving in public education. Reckhow confirms that total foundation giving to K–12 education may exceed $1 billion, which sounds like a lot of money, but relative to the almost $600 billion spent annually on public education, it is actually a very small percentage.

Reckhow shows that large foundations have recognized the need to focus on influencing how public monies are spent, and that they are now devoting a significantly larger share of their giving on policy advocacy. Around the same time that I was recommending that donors shift their efforts toward policy influence, many large foundations were already making the change. Reckhow’s careful analysis of foundation tax filings shows direct giving to public schools dropped dramatically between 2000 and 2005, while giving to policy-advocacy efforts rose sharply.

Reckhow extends this analysis by warning us that shifting to policy advocacy won’t necessarily result in policy success, especially on an enduring basis. Foundations are tempted to concentrate their advocacy efforts in locations where there is centralized control over policy decisions. She empirically demonstrates that districts with mayoral or state control have been much more likely to attract foundation giving. It’s like one-stop shopping; foundations can get policy change while devoting fewer resources if they have to persuade fewer agencies or policymakers to embrace their preferred reforms.

But what happens when there is a personnel change among the central authorities? Eventually there will be a Pharaoh who knows not Joseph. Without building authentic and lasting support among local constituencies, philanthropic dreams of policy change may be ephemeral.

Reckhow illustrates this danger by contrasting the reform strategies in New York City and Los Angeles. In New York City, mayoral control was fully achieved. Through both network modeling and extensive interviews, Reckhow is able to show that reform-oriented philanthropists concentrated their efforts in New York on a relatively narrow band of elites to advance their policy agenda. In Los Angeles, by contrast, education policy decision-making is more decentralized and diffuse. In Los Angeles, reform-oriented donors were forced to expand their efforts to cultivate support among a broader set of constituencies.

New York City may have been easier, faster, and cheaper for reform-oriented foundations to accomplish their goals, but that speed came at a price. The support for reform policies is so narrow in New York City that Reckhow doubts it will survive for long after Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this year. In Los Angeles, extensive efforts to build a base of support among a diversity of constituencies may help protect those reforms even with changes in political control of the district. To be clear, Reckhow does not provide evidence that Los Angeles’ reforms are lasting better than New York’s; her analysis leads her to expect that New York reforms rest on a thin and unsteady foundation and may not endure.

Reckhow is clearly advising foundations to avoid top-down reform strategies, but the largest foundations are not heeding her advice. Many have decided to up the ante on centralization. Mayoral or state control is no longer enough. They need national control. They are now focused on implementing the Common Core state standards with aligned national tests upon which teacher evaluation will increasingly rest. Federal policy, through Race to the Top financial incentives and selective offers of waivers to NCLB requirements, is pushing this centralizing strategy forward. If large foundations can build and control a national machinery to shape education policy nationwide, then they have no reason to worry about how broadly based support is for their preferred policies. As long as national elites favor their agenda, they hope that the national machine they are constructing can force policies from the very top all the way down to every classroom.

Reckhow’s implication is that this national reform machine is doomed to fail. Either state and local education authorities will resist the national reforms before they can be completed, or they will ignore and subvert policies that actually go into effect. Millions of teachers and thousands of schools cannot all be monitored and compelled from the top. Reckhow’s lesson is that enduring and successful reforms require a broad and deep base of support, which top-down reform efforts are failing to develop.

Of course, there is an alternative to trying to convince the education establishment to buy into reform. Donors could mobilize the most important yet most ignored constituency of all: parents. By expanding parental choices in schools, foundations can engage parents very effectively in controlling education policies.

Top-down reform strategies, such as merit pay or high-stakes testing, may be fragile, too vulnerable to shifts in the political winds. Once Bloomberg leaves office, who will fight to keep merit pay or high-stakes testing in place in the Big Apple? Bottom-up strategies, however, are more robust. Movements like school choice grow their own base of support. Once parents have good choices of schools, they are much more likely to fight efforts to take them away.

Reckhow thinks donors should court unions, community activists, and local leaders, but she fails to consider building the base of support for reform at the even more fundamental level of parents. Engaging parents in education reform through school choice may take longer, but no one involved in education reform should fool themselves into thinking that real and enduring reform can be done quickly. Donors need the wisdom and evidence that a book like Follow the Money can offer—but they also need the patience to do the job right.

-Jay P. Greene

This review was first published in Philanthropy Magazine.

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