Home > Uncategorized > Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part One: “Independent” Foundations Set Policy Priorities

Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part One: “Independent” Foundations Set Policy Priorities

September 1, 2018

For the next three days I will be making the case that philanthropic giving is having an adverse impact on public education. The case is drawn primarily from Gospels of Giving, a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert that, in turn, draws from several books that have recently been published describing how philanthropic giving is distorting the inequities that exist in our economy. The case against philanthropy is based on three premises:

First: by allowing philanthropists to fund research and initiatives it undercuts the creation of policy priorities through independent research and political discourse by elected officials.

Second: by allowing 501(c)(3) groups to be deemed as charities it provides a means for mega-donors to advance anti-democratic ideas that can be amplified even more when combined with relatively small political donations.

Third: by allowing affluent school districts to create foundations small-bore philanthropists undercut the tax structure that could provide a means of equalizing education funding.

Ms. Kolbert opens her article with a brief history of philanthropy, using Andrew Carnegie as an exemplar…. and based on her description of his stated ideals and actions it seems that Mr. Carnegie would be very much at home with today’s philanthropists. Here is Ms. Kolbert’s overview of an essay Mr. Mr. Carnegie wrote at the height of his career immodestly titled The Gospel of Wealth:

The “Gospel” opened with a discussion of inequity. This was the Gilded Age, and, even as most Americans were struggling to get by, the one-per-centers were putting up “cottages” in Newport. The disparity was, in Carnegie’s view, unavoidable.It was the price of progress, and progress, ultimately, benefitted everyone.“The ‘good old times’ were not good old times,” he observed. “Neither master nor servant was as well situated then as today.”

Having dealt with accumulation of wealth, Carnegie then turned to his real concern: what to do with it. Passing on riches to one’s children was a mistake, he argued, for inheritances “often work more for the injury than for the good of the recipients.” Handing out money to the poor was similarly ill-advised, since “neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving.” Rather, the best way to dispose of a fortune was to endow institutions that would aid “those who desire to rise.” Universities were a good cause; so, too, were public libraries, music halls, and swimming baths. The “man of wealth,” Carnegie advised, should consider himself “the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer.”

Translation: I am a wealthy businessman therefore I have greater wisdom than any of my “poorer brethren”. In the case of public education, that would mean that I can conceive of a superior way to operate public services– far superior to those that might be devised by my “poorer brethren” who toil in classrooms or spend hours at meetings poring over budgets and policy manuals. What public education needs is advice from a foundation! I can assemble a team of experts who share my perspective on the way public enterprise should function and thereby bring their “superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer” to the service of “my poorer brethren“. As described in Raymond Callahan’s outstanding book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, this is precisely what happened in the 1920s as a result of reports issued by foundations underwritten by wealthy scions. Schools were modeled after the factories and mills that made Robber Barons wealthy… and our age-based cohorts and use of standardization persists to this day.

Ms. Kolbert goes on to describe how Mr. Carnegie’s business practices exacerbated the economic divide:

Carnegie made his money from railroads and steel. Three years after he wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” he decided to break the union—the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers—at one of his company’s largest plants, the Homestead steelworks, outside Pittsburgh. Employees were presented with a new contract with pay cuts up to thirty-five per cent. When they rejected it, they were locked out. Carnegie Steel brought in Pinkerton agents to guard the plant, and in the resulting melee at least sixteen people were killed. In the end, the union collapsed.

To critics, the Homestead strike made explicit the inconsistency of Carnegie’s position. How could a person ruthlessly exploit his employees and, at the same time, claim to be a benefactor of the toiling masses? The Saturday Globe, a Utica-based weekly, published a cartoon showing two Carnegies, conjoined at the hip. One, smiling, handed out a library and a check; the other held out a notice telling workers that their pay had been slashed. “As the tight-fisted employer he reduces wages that he may play philanthropist,” the caption read.

But what of today’s philanthropists? Like Mr. Carnegie they seem unperturbed by the inequities in our society. Like Mr. Carnegie they seem to believe that they are wiser than their poorer brethren and possess an expertise that eludes all but those who toil on their behalf in foundations they create to dispense their wealth and advise public servants on the best means of helping citizens. And, alas, like Mr. Carnegie they seem to overlook the incongruence of the low wages and poor working conditions that their employees experience so that their bottom line can increase thereby increasing their ability to make donations.

In her article, Ms. Kolbert cites books, essay, and talks given by Anand Giridharadas, a journalist who, in 2011, was named a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, which illustrates the conundrum cold-blooded-businessmen-turned-philanthropists face. At one of the talks— as it turned out the final talk he gave, Mr. Giridharadas spoke of the what he called “the Aspen Consensus.”

“The Aspen Consensus, in a nutshell, is this,” he said. “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.”

As readers of this blog realize, few philanthropists have heeded this message in their funding decisions. The foundations underwritten by “reformers” all have a penchant for recommending test-driven decision making and the privatization of public schools. Their drive to rely on standardized testing has unwittingly reinforced the century old structure of public education and their drive to privatize public schools has undercut governance by elected school boards and replaced it with governance by corporate profiteers. Both of these trends have done harm to communities and to children enrolled in public schools, especially public schools serving underprivileged children and public schools in property poor towns.

My thought: unless the current crop of Gilded Age philanthropists develop some self awareness and accept that in today’s world there are MANY “poorer brethren” who possess more wisdom and insight about public governance than they do we will find ourselves in a world where fewer and fewer of the “poorer brethren” are engaged in governance… and democracy will wither as a result…. and THAT will bring about considerable harm.



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