Home > Uncategorized > Where are Today’s True Philanthropists? They AREN’T Investing in Charter Schools!

Where are Today’s True Philanthropists? They AREN’T Investing in Charter Schools!

Today the NYTimes published an op ed piece by David Callahan describing the outsized impact of philanthropists as a result of reductions in discretionary government spending. Titled “As Government Retrenches, Philanthropy Booms”, Mr. Callahan’s article covers some of the issues I’ve raised in earlier posts regarding the impact of philanthropy on public education. His essay includes several references to the role philanthropists have played in the expansion of charter schools, an impact that he acknowledges has been both good and bad. But Mr. Callahan overlooks one reality: philanthropy in the 21st Century no longer matches the definition of philanthropy as it existed in previous years.

Webster defines philanthropy as “…an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes”. Nowadays it appears to be defined as a gift that yields a return on investment.

When philanthropists in the Gilded Age donated money to build libraries and national parks, they did so with the noble intention of making valuable resources available to less advantaged Americans. I am not so certain that the motives of today’s philanthropists are quite so pure. When the Waltons donate to expand “choice” they appear to be doing so to bring their model of cutthroat competition to schools. They want to see schools standardize, eliminate unions, reduce overhead, and reduce costs. In the long run that would lower their tax burden and increase their profits. It also has the potential to increase the return on their investments in for-profit charters. When technology billionaires donate to public schools to encourage the use of Big Data they, too, stand to benefit from their “gift” since the schools will need to perpetually upgrade the systems they purchase with the “gift” they receive.

I don’t think the philanthropists of the past looked to increase their bottom line. They gave with purer purposes. Andrew Carnegie increased his bottom line when he invested in libraries… nor did the Rockefellers benefit from donating Acadia and the Tetons to the National Park system. Both Mr. Carnegie and Mr. Rockefeller created Foundations who helped public education directly and indirectly, but neither of them attempted to guide the direction of the foundations and the mission of the foundations had nothing to do with their enterprises nor did they expect to gain any benefit from their largesse.

At the conclusion of his article, Mr. Callahan links the impact of philanthropists with the current inequality in our country and makes a compelling argument for changing the regulations governing philanthropy:

In an earlier era, when America had less inequality and stronger mass-member organizations, nonprofits advocating on policy issues typically spoke for lots of ordinary people — not a handful of private funders, as is now often the case. One way to rebalance civic life would be to restrict the size of allowable tax-deductible gifts to policy groups, while encouraging gifts by smaller donors. Another step might be to narrow which nonprofits qualify for tax-deductible gifts, with an eye toward reducing giving to influence public policy.

Ultimately, efforts to level the playing field of civic life won’t get very far as long as economic inequality remains so high, putting outsize resources in the hands of a sliver of supercitizens. Critics of today’s income and wealth gaps tend to focus on who gets what. Yet as a deluge of new wealth pours into civil society, which Alexis de Tocqueville once saw as the realm of the Everyman, we should also be asking who gets heard.

The “super citizens” who own and control today’s mass media and who make outsized donations to both political parties will be doing everything possible to persuade the electorate that the status quo is in Everyman’s interest. Those of us who want to let our voices be heard will need to resort to the comment sections of news media and our blogs.

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