Nonprofit Organizations

Have Foundations Wasted Billions of Dollars in Education? Where’s The Outrage?

July 9, 2010

Some of today’s largest foundations are going to great lengths to transform American society in unprecedented ways. Yet surprisingly, they don’t expect — and actually work to stymie — criticism of such efforts.

So argues education expert Diane Ravitch of New York University and the Brookings Institution, echoing what others have said before her: Foundations are used to being treated with kid gloves since their intent is to do good. Their aim is pure. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch makes specific claims about particular foundations working to influence education policy that has general import to the entire foundation field.

Ravitch has had “a radical change of heart” about many of the very educational reform ideas that she once prominently advocated and that foundations are now pursuing, from standardized testing to choice to charter schools. She’s changed her mind on these policies because of the way they are being carried out, and the negative long-term effects they may have. (“Public education today is in peril,” she writes.) In other words, she’s drawn lessons from her work and experience. And that’s something she suggests foundations, at least those she targets in the book, aren’t doing, because they don’t admit mistakes — or worse, don’t even know when they make mistakes. The net result? In effect, these foundations have wasted billions of dollars, and are on track to continue the practice. For example, Bill Gates’s new goals, focused on spreading charter schools, are “as ill advised as the $2 billion he had [earlier] poured into restructuring the nation’s high schools,” Ravitch writes.

Ravitch supports her arguments through sharp and specific criticism of the leading members of what she calls education’s “Billionaire Boys’ Club”: the Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad and Walton Family foundations. Most damning is Ravitch’s citation of specific ways these foundations have worked to shield their efforts from either journalistic or academic scrutiny.

She claims that through public relations campaigns and funding of advocacy and think tanks, these foundations have left “almost no one willing to criticize [their] vast power and unchecked influence.” Not only are education experts quick to defend them when a stray criticism gets aired, she argues, but no one holds foundations to account when they drastically change course. She cites a time when the Gates Foundation quietly, completely discontinued evaluations of a failing program, going out of its way to avoid public criticism. Ravitch asserts that many working education professionals, including teachers and principals, find fault with much of today’s reforms, but few are willing or able to speak out against them — and these foundations have not consulted them, either.

Much of what Ravitch writes is intentionally provocative. She’s styling herself as a lone, loud voice of dissent. But even if her claims are exaggerated, or worse, her line of argument suggests today’s foundations are little more open to scrutiny or to a diversity of voices and experts than those of many decades ago. In fact, a recent publication by Grantmakers for Education, Seeing It Through: Advanced Strategies for Influencing Education Policy, notes that foundations’ work in education policy still suffers from a tendency “to think they know what’s best” and from a “lack of rigor in inspecting the idea and testing it against data.”

If nothing else, foundations should work harder to engage Ravitch and other critics — as well as the people who will be impacted most – in healthy debate on the merits of specific education reform approaches. Foundations of all stripes, in all fields, need to be more open to public scrutiny and debate – more voluntarily accountable.