Home > Uncategorized > Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part Two: Billionaire’s Think Tanks Promote Privatization

Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part Two: Billionaire’s Think Tanks Promote Privatization

September 2, 2018

Over the Labor Day weekend when I will be unable to write extended posts, I am posting a three part series 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.

Today I want to examine how 501(c)(3) groups, which the tax codes deems as charities, provides a means for mega-donors to advance anti-democratic ideas that can be amplified even more when combined with relatively small political donations. In her essay, Ms. Kolbert gives several inches of print to David Callahan, David Callahan, the founder and editor and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that provides a penetrating look into the way philanthropists operate. He is quoted as follows:

“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,” he writes in “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” “Things are going to get worse, too.

Part of the problem, according to Callahan, lies in the broad way that philanthropy has been defined. Under the federal tax code, an organization that feeds the hungry can count as a philanthropy, and so can a university where students study the problem of hunger, and so, too, can a think tank devoted to downplaying hunger as a problem. All these qualify as what are known, after the relevant tax-code provision, as 501(c)(3)s, meaning that the contributions they receive are tax deductible, and that the earnings on their endowments are largely tax-free. 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in partisan activity, but, as “The Givers” convincingly argues, activists on both sides of the ideological divide have developed work-arounds.

At this point in the article, Ms. Kolbert cites examples from left-leaning as well as right leaning websites, using Tim Gill, who’s spent hundreds of thousands supporting the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement as the left-leaning example and Art Pope whose used his millions to support a network of foundations that “…advocate for voter-identification—or, if you prefer, voter-suppression—laws.

But here’s what is true in public education: there is no right or left argument to be made. Instead, the debate is between those advocating non-sectarian “school choice” and those advocating a pure voucher system that can incorporate sectarian schools. NO ONE IS ADVOCATING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION GOVERNED BY ELECTED SCHOOL BOARDS. When it comes to public education, the “bi-partisan reformers” have co-opted the think tanks that draft public education policy. Unions and professional organizations with no deep packets and, therefore, no lobbying clout are the only groups advocating for public schools. And their arguments are drowned out. These paragraphs from Ms. Kolbert’s article describe the situation:

It is difficult to say what fraction of philanthropic giving goes toward shaping public policy. Callahan estimates that the figure is somewhere around ten billion dollars a year. Such an amount, he says, might not sound huge, but it’s more than the annual contributions made to candidates, parties, and super-pacs combined. The result is doubly undemocratic. For every billion dollars spent on advocacy tricked out as philanthropy, several hundred million dollars in uncaptured taxes are lost to the federal treasury.

“It’s not just that the megaphones operated by 501(c)(3) groups and financed by a sliver of rich donors have gotten louder and louder, making it harder for ordinary citizens to be heard,” Callahan notes. “It’s that these citizens are helping foot the bill.”…

“When it comes to who gets heard in the public square, ordinary citizens can’t begin to compete with an activist donor class,” Callahan writes. “How many very rich people need to care intensely about a cause to finance megaphones that drown out the voices of everyone else?” he asks. “Not many.”

The 501(c)(3) deductions, then, are hurting public education in two ways: they are eroding the tax base AND they are funding foundations that hammer away at the message that public schools are failing and the only way to improve them is to compel them to compete for “customers”.

Can bloggers and advocates for increased funding to ensure equity among public schools hope to compete against billionaires like Bill Gates? Mr. Gates spent millions underwriting think tanks who promoted the Common Core, millions more helping those same think tanks underwrite the common core, and tens of thousands more supporting presidential candidates in both parties. His rewarded was President Obama’s misbegotten Race to the Top which alienated not only teachers but most “on the right” who disfavor “federal overreach” when it comes to schools. The right was, however, eternally grateful that Race to the Top helped convince a majority of voters that “choice” was the solution, which opened the door for Betsy DeVos to promote vouchers as the antidote.

It will be an uphill fight to persuade the public that given time and resources all public school students could perform at the same level as those enrolled in the “elite” districts…. but rather than spend more money and be more patient the public is now persuaded that a fast, cheap and easy solution exists… and fast, cheap, and easy is ALWAYS better than slow, expensive, and difficult. But change takes time, costs money, and requires effort. MAYBE when fast-cheap-easy fails minds will change and we’ll set a better course. MAYBE a billionaire can help change the public’s thinking on that issue the same way they’ve persuaded the public that their democratically operated schools are “failing”.

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