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© Texas Historical Commission. Pease School. November 1, 1976


The Perennial Endeavor to "Save" Education

by Sarah Reckhow
May 6, 2021

This interview with Sarah Reckhow, associate professor in the political science department at Michigan State University and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Sarah | My work is on philanthropy in politics, education, policy, and urban politics. I've studied the role of big philanthropy in urban school district reforms, including cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit. I've also looked more recently at the way city budgets have been impacted, especially rust belt cities, and how philanthropy is stepping in where there's fiscal austerity. 

frank | How did you find yourself looking at philanthropy in this way? 

In a nutshell, from 2002 to 2004, I was a Teach for America Corps member. I taught high school in Baltimore before I went to graduate school. At the time I was teaching high school, I had a lot of friends and colleagues teaching in other high schools in Baltimore city. A peculiar thing was going on in Baltimore.

There was this effort to take large high schools and break them up into smaller schools. 

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Screen Shot 2021 05 06 at 2.30.25 PM

Texas Historical Commission. [University Junior High School, (UT Child Care Center - interior hallway lockers)]photographApril 1, 1998; ( May 7, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Texas Historical Commission.

Suddenly, these schools were thrown into plans where they were just going to build walls in the halls, and one school is on one side of the hallway, and one is on the other side. I had a vague sense at the time that the Gates Foundation was involved, but didn't have any kind of systematic understanding about how they were involved.

After that, I went to grad school to study political science and ended up working on a project on Oakland school reform. What I had observed in Baltimore was happening there. We essentially looked at local nonprofit organizations that were involved in partnering with the school district to set up these small schools. 

Our research interest had very little to do with philanthropy specifically; I actually think we were pretty naive about the role of philanthropy at the beginning. When I went out to do the interviews with board members, school administrators, local nonprofit leaders, they kept talking about the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, and others. At that point, I started to reformulate my dissertation and focus it on philanthropy. I thought what was going on with philanthropy in these cases was clearly political and that it was something we should be studying political scientists. So I decided to do that. 

Why were they doing this?

This is the early 2000s. The Gates Foundation was pretty new at this point in time and their first big initiative in education reform was a push for small schools. There had been earlier reforms in the 90s centered around this idea that high schools needed to be smaller and more personalized in order to better address the needs of students. This idea predates the foundations' involvement. In Oakland, for example, there were grassroots organizations that had coalesced around the idea of small schools.

I think Bill Gates latched onto this specific idea and Tom Vander Ark, who was doing the education programming at the time, was also very enamored with this idea. When the Gates Foundation became involved, the approach to implementation significantly changed from the way nonprofits had been approaching it. It became about expanding quickly, scaling up quickly, and figuring out ways that you replicate practices so that you can do things faster. They saw it as, “We're going to take this kernel of an idea and we're going to try to implement it on school district-wide scales in places like Oakland and New York City and Denver. And we think it's going to transform high schools.”

What was the effect? There's always the threat of paternalism, was that at play here?

The two cities I looked at most closely were Oakland and New York. What I think you could say here is that, in one sense, the foundation, by significantly ratcheting up the resources involved in efforts that were originally locally rooted, was positive. It gave these organizations more money to expand their ideas and do exciting things. However, there is a but. 

They were working with school district administrations to figure out a systematic transformation of high school, after high school, and that extended into communities and neighborhoods where there wasn't a preexisting nonprofit already involved in this work, or maybe the community didn't want their high school renamed and broken up into smaller chunks. That becomes a real issue. People feel very strong attachments and identities a lot of times with their neighborhood high school and the athletics and the bands and all the things that go along with that.

It became clear that maybe they hadn't thought through some things. Do people actually want this?

What do extracurriculars look like when you go from high schools that have 1500 students to 300 students? New York started to see some real inequalities between resources at the schools. 

The reformulation towards a more top-down approach to implementing it, which came with the large infusion of money was probably the biggest thing that started to create pushback in both communities. And over the longer term, financially, it is a little harder to sustain a large number of small schools. You're paying more principal salaries, you are sustaining more separate schools as organizations and institutions. Can you still do that financially? Oakland, which has had some financial difficulties as a city, started to roll back some of this for those financial reasons.

What does the community want is an undervalued question. Dollar for dollar, how does this money get spent? 

That's a big question, and it changes over time. What I can say from my work in the early 2000s is that the major funders started to pick cities to focus on. So that's part of this Oakland and New York story, but other places apply as well. Washington DC is another one. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as well. Chicago is one. So, first of all, some cities are getting far more money on a per people basis than others. 

As you press into that, and interrogate where that money is actually going, you see it is not going so much directly to the public sector, but going to nonprofits that either work in partnership with the school district or charter schools. 

Why? What does that say about the philosophy of philanthropic giving?

To some extent, this comes from the philosophy of the funders. Whether it was a belief in charters as an alternative to public schools, or it was this idea that nonprofits could work more efficiently, be more innovative, and be more responsive — this certainly directs the money.

There was a degree to which some school districts really try to attract funding and to demonstrate to funders. There was a lot of that in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg. They had a very proactive approach for public schools that got a lot of philanthropic grants.

I also think it is worth pointing out a certain point for the public sector, in accepting these philanthropic funds, there is always going to be scrutiny about whether this money is driving their agenda.

Why are the largest donors and foundations so focused on education? 

This is just one of these very basic features of philanthropy. Education is dominant. It's perennial. You can look to earlier philanthropic funding to see its roots. The Annenberg Foundation did a huge initiative around schools in the nineties. You can go back to earlier grants from the Ford Foundation where education was a major share of their grant funding.

The particular funders change, but the dominance of education as an issue remains incredibly persistent.

As to why that is the case, I mean, philanthropists have ideas about changing the world and it might be that children and the youth are the logical places to focus their work when thinking about the future. I mean, I don't know to what extent that is true, but kids look good on brochures. 

Do you have a positive outlook on how education will continue to change? With or without philanthropy? 

On the one hand, I think a lot of things about the era of philanthropy I studied most closely, the early 2000s, coincided with No Child Left Behind being passed, the rise of accountability and standard-based movement, the rise of charter schools, and a lot of technocratically framed policy through the federal level. This extends from Bush to Obama. You could say the time frame extends right up until 2015 and the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which really softened some aspects of No Child Left Behind. 

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Screen Shot 2021 05 06 at 2.39.31 PM

US National Archives

Right, education was a huge piece of Bush’s 1999 campaign. 

I think there were things about the federal policy landscape at that time that were conducive to a certain type of philanthropy. There was a shared mindset around an accountability framework, a technocratic approach to policymaking. I'm not necessarily trying to weigh all the pros and cons of all that mindset, that era seems to have had an endpoint. 

We're in a different moment in education philanthropy that I cannot myself totally characterize yet. The ideas about formulating top-down approaches to transform school districts are a lot less salient now than they once were. 

What makes me worried is that there are a lot of questions about people's trust and confidence in public schools as a public institution right now. 

I worry about the investment in public institutions and how they're able to maintain themselves in their own right, and not have to fall back on philanthropy, particularly with the pandemic. 

Schools are losing enrollment during the pandemic. We have hugely bitter political fights over schools reopening all over the country. We've had the flat-footed response at every level of government in terms of how schools operated over the last year. It is not a good look. And I worry, in moments like this, when the public sector looks as weak as it does, that this is where it can look really attractive for external groups to come in as the "saving entity."