Private interests are playing an increasingly prominent role in public education. It is a global trend that is already evident in Australia, as we can see from previous posts on this blog.
I believe we can learn a lot from what is happening in American education policymaking. In particular, strategies are evident around efforts by private interests in the US, such as philanthropies, to influence education policy using what we call “idea orchestration” — arranging all the pieces in the policymaking process by aligning the efforts of think tanks and other intermediaries in ways that essentially privatize public policymaking.
Few would argue against a need for substantial reform in American education. There is widespread concern with the country’s performance on international measures as well as with its notable achievement gaps between rich and poor or minority students. While chronic concerns with the education system have sparked generations of education reform, (as I show in a new analysis with Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe in the Australian Educational Researcher) recent policies are driven by private interests and reflect a particular focus on private sector models.
Most notably, these interests are re-shaping education policymaking not through traditional democratic channels, but through business investment-style strategies manifested in education policy as “idea orchestration.”
In some ways, private interests penetrating public policymaking in the US is not new. For generations, the for-profit business sector has advanced its vision of a low-cost system producing employable graduates, while non-profit philanthropies like the Carnegie or Ford Foundations have had their own initiatives in areas such as improving the quality of teaching, or addressing poverty.
The New Edu-Philanthropy
First, the scale of private resources directed at influencing education policy is unprecedented, as evident by the sheer size of some of the primary movers and shakers. For instance, the Walton family, by far the wealthiest in America, directs a foundation with a primary focus on reforming public education. The Gates Foundation, which combines the wealth of two of the world’s three richest people, has assets of almost $45 billion (USD). Especially in an era of tight budgets and increasing economic inequality, the resources these individuals can dangle in front of policymakers and organizations can be an irresistible enticement for embracing their agendas.
Secondly, the non-profit and for-profit elements of the private sector are in remarkable alignment in terms of their agendas for education. Earlier efforts to reform education often saw philanthropies and businesses taking contrasting, if not conflicting, approaches. For instance, the Henry Ford II famously lamented the perceived anti-capitalist direction of his family’s namesake foundation. Now, all of the “big six” philanthropies active in education reform leverage the wealth accumulated relatively recently by their business-person founders: the Gates fortune from Microsoft, the Walton wealth from the Wal-Mart chain of discount stores (the largest private-sector employer in the US), for instance. Thus, it can be expected that the efforts of the foundations are aligned with, or at least not opposed to, the business interests of the companies that made their founders wealthy.
Third, the business sensibilities these individuals used in amassing their fortunes are being directly applied in how they manage their philanthropic efforts as well as how they expect the recipients of their largess to manage their own efforts. In fact, there is a remarkable confluence of interest and objectives amongst these leading philanthropies in supporting competition among individuals and organizations, with the implications that schools should be run in the same way that these philanthropists have accumulated and managed their own wealth: through business strategies. Hence they are throwing their support largely behind policies that promote consumer choice, competition between schools, and greater autonomy for schools.
In contrast to previous generations of private influence on public policy, current patterns of philanthropic activity are different, focusing not only on giving, but on managing and orchestrating efforts. A defining feature of this new business-based education philanthropy is not simply its endorsement of a private-sector model for schools, but a business-style strategy to bring this vision to fruition. Instead of simply throwing money at an issue, funding a study, a project, or an organization, these business-based philanthropists treat their efforts as comprehensive investments. As with the rise of their own business empires, any investment is buttressed with related efforts around policy, politics, and public image. Rather than just channeling funding at a problem, they take care to align adequate political support, have a policy infrastructure in place, and arrange appropriate media and intellectual resources.
In these efforts, so-called “think tanks” play a crucial role in legitimizing and organizing the concerted efforts of like-minded people and organisations. Funded by these philanthropies, think tanks provide the analyses, evidence and intellectual credibility crucial to their funders’ agendas, but at the same time play a critical role in convening key players in public and private sectors, supplying useful data and talking-points to allied media outlets, and identifying and attacking potential opposition.
For instance, the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University receives funding from the Gates, Walton, Koch, and Friedman Foundations, and produces research generally aligned with the agendas of those funders, even when that may conflict with a consensus in the independent research community. PEPG also possesses substantial media acumen, and has been successful in placing its associates in key positions in the public and private sector.
However, rather than simply producing ideas (as their label would suggest), many think tanks — even university-based ones such as PEPG — might be more accurately labeled as “thought tanks” to reflect the fact that their efforts generally revolve around one idea: increasing markets in education. That is, rather than developing and analyzing new policy ideas, the primary contribution of groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the State Policy Network, has been in terms of developing strategies to advance free market, low cost policies, rather than developing additional, much less alternative, policies.
While there may be something laudable about philanthropists wielding their vast fortunes to improve schools, the emerging patterns of how they are doing this may also point to some reasons for concern. Their reliance on business-style strategies to push ideas (or an idea) orchestrated through think tanks highlights the marginalization of democratic channels and the rise of privatized public-policymaking.
Christopher Lubienski is professor of education policy at the University of Illinois and Sir Walter Murdoch Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University. His research focuses on education policy and reform, with a particular concern for issues of equity and access, and on the political economy of education policymaking. His co-authors on the paper on which this blog entry is based, Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe, are advanced doctoral candidates in education policy at the University of Illinois.