Who stands to benefit? We all need to know

Some of the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations in Australia are involved in educational philanthropy – giving money to public schools via foundations. Education philanthropy represents a powerful network from diverse sectors including political, business, corporations and media. 

This is framed to the public as charitable acts, and wanting to ‘give back’. But we need to ask questions: who stands to benefit? Who has the power to direct large-scale policy? What are the implications for democracy, social justice and equity? 

Philanthropy in education presents clear ramifications for transparent democracy and government, in addition to the funding of public schools, and the commercialisation of schools. As a public, do we welcome corporate funders in our public school sector, and what are the wider implications of this? 

This is venture philanthropy, wanting something in return. It is strategic and organised; partnering rather than giving. 

“Corporate welfare” designed by Rowe and Holme.

This could be policy influence, tax minimisation or the generation of profit for your business. This is what Bill Gates described as ‘creative capitalism’—a third-way approach ‘where governments, businesses and non-profits work together’. Venture philanthropy is investing, not simply granting. It aims to be entrepreneurial, high-impact and high-engagement.

Venture philanthropists aim for two primary strategies: first, to act as a type of ‘boundary spanner’, linking together a range of actors from NGOs, governments, corporations, intergovernmental agencies and business. Second, establish ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘evidence brokers’ to leverage authority with the public and achieve large-scale reform.

How is this happening in education? Venture philanthropy is wide-spread in the US and the UK.  It rests on claims of altruism, whilst simultaneously generating profits and significant influence in education reform (surveys with educators show that the majority believe, for example, that the Gates Foundation is more powerful than the US government when it comes to education reform, and in their successful backing of numerous policy agendas, such as charter schools or the Common Core Initiative- they would be right).

We have to ask ourselves—is corporate-backed education reform a good thing? Do we want corporations to be more transparent in how they are driving large-scale policy and directing education reform? These large-scale reforms, as enabled by ‘big money’, are often enacted through ‘foundations’ which claim they are motivated by improving equity in education. In other words, the influence and the money trail is often not very easy to trace as they hide under subsidiaries or ultimate holding companies.

This is a short post which will only provide a brief introduction (the fuller length version is published in a peer-reviewed journal). Let’s consider just one example: the emergence of Australian Schools Plus, the first nation-wide charity with Deductible Gift Recipient Status, that enables corporations, businesses and high-net wealth individuals to give to public schools and receive a tax-deduction.

 Venture philanthropy

 Philanthropy in disadvantaged public schools was first recommended (in a significant way) in the Federal Review of Funding for Schooling (recommendation 41). The Gonski Review called for reform that would emulate models from the UK and the US, where academy schools and charter schools partner with philanthropists to lead ‘systemic improvements’. This recommendation was driven by venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia and supported by others (e.g. The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation – Origin Energy). 

The Report colloquially became known as the Gonski Review, in light of the chairman of the report – the ‘most well-networked business man in Australia’, corporate consultant David Gonski. Gonski is a well-known and long-term political advocate of corporate philanthropy, having sat on senior advisory boards for the Howard Government in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gonski was highly influential in ushering in high-level reform in this area. He is also the co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services ((according to current ASIC records, APS is a subsidiary of venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia– a central lobbyist for education reform. Please note that SVA stipulate that this relationship ended in 2017).

In the review’s advocacy for increased funding for disadvantaged students, the policy document became well-known and the broader public came to associate Gonski with educational equity (e.g. #igiveagonski). 

But one of the most enduring policies Gonski 1.0 has implemented is the introduction of corporate-backed funding of public schools, unclear money trails and questionable policy influence by ‘big money’. The following is a timeline which shows the key stages:

 Table 1. A timeline of key events.

2010Gonski is invited to Chair the Federal Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling – via a personal call on his mobile from Julia Gillard, then federal minister for Education (Gonski was on holidays at the time with his family). He was ‘taken aback’ by the invitation, considering his prior lack of experience in this sector. Gillard is a well-known advocate of philanthropy in education, as styled on the US-system. 
2011The Gonski Review is released. A major recommendation of the report is to create a fund to promote philanthropy in disadvantaged schools.
2012Eight leading not-for-profit organisations meet to discuss the foundation of a national charity to promote structured philanthropy in education.
2012The Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC) Act 2012 passed by the Australian Government in order to reduce ‘red tape’ for charities.
2013The Australian Government provides $5 million seed funding (of public money) for the establishment of Australian Schools Plus Ltd.
July 2013Australian Schools Plus Ltd registered as a charity via Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
2014/2015Federal Parliament passes legislation granting Australian Schools Plus Ltd Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR1) status (Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 5) Bill 2014). Corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals are encouraged to give money to public schools in order to receive a tax-deduction.
2016Schools Plus launch online crowdfunding platform for public schools, called ‘Fundraise Yourself’.
2016‘Pioneers in Philanthropy’ is launched (hereby referred to as PIP). PIP is not a registered charity. PIP partners with banks and large media groups (e.g. Fairfax Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Bank).
2016Schools Plus includes board members from News Corp Australia, Foxtel, ABN AMRO Bank, and AFL Football. Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Toyota, Google, Origin Foundation, Harvey Norman and many more.
2018UNSW Gonski Institute of Education is launched, funded by philanthropy including donations from David Gonski. The sources of the donations are not publicly available. UNSW stands for University of New South Wales. The Chair of the Advisory Board is an extension of Gonski’s network and the Schools Plus network: the chairman is the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank; committee members include the Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW (Gonski was the former board director); the general manager of the Paul Ramsay Foundation (donor to Schools Plus and the largest donor for Teach for Australia); and the CEO of the Centre for Social Impact (financially established by Gonski and three of his colleagues).

The federal legislation- which set an historical precedent – received very little media coverage, and none that was critical, questioning or investigating. It is overwhelmingly regarded positively that corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals can give to public schools. Arguably, giving to public schools is positive–but what is the price? It is important to note formidable influences in modern education policy in Australia.

Big money, big influence? 

Philanthropic organisations such as Schools Plus host a wide range of hybrid market-state actors across corporate and not-for-profit organisations, including board members from News Corp Australia and Foxtel (as part of the Murdoch empire), a former CEO from Deloitte and elite sporting groups (an AFL Football Club). Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Google, Toyota, Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Origin Foundation (from Origin Energy), retail giants (Harvey Norman) and many more (note, this lists 2020 funders).

The following visual endeavours to illustrate just some of the donors:

A picture of Schools Plus and a snapshot of their high-profile donors, representing the wealthiest in Australian society.  

Effectively, each node represents a high-level of power from corporate, philanthropy or the government sector. The networks are characterised via reproductive values; and relational patterns and replications are evident across the network. Gonski’s professional and personal network is reproduced throughout the Schools Plus network; this includes banking giants, media oligarchs, and the wealthiest identities. For example, Gonski’s mentee Catherine Brenner, the former Chair of the AMP Bank, occupies a board role for Schools Plus. Major power-brokers are represented in the network: Roger Massy-Greene, ex-Bank of America and Rio Tinto CEO, political party donor, married to Belinda Hutchinson (co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services and long-term funder of Social Ventures Australia), is part of the Pioneers in Philanthropy (and a newly formed member of the ‘expert board’, and Director of AERO). Kim Williams is a former executive from Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and News Corp. The CEO of Schools Plus is a former corporate consultant from Deloitte (one of the big four).

The majority of board members represent financier or consultancy networks, rather than any experience or knowledge within the classroom, as teachers, school leaders or principals.

Schools Plus is closely aligned with Social Ventures Australia (a venture philanthropic organisation). Their first CEO was Michael Traill, the CEO from SVA. Their prior registered address was SVA’s address. SVA were described as the ‘driving force’ behind setting up Schools Plus. There are similar people who hold roles. For instance, former board member of Schools Plus (Lisa Paul AO) is also the former director from SVA (this is common, including the newly formed AERO– many of the directors are former/current SVA directors). The face of these organisations tends to be far different to the engine (money) that is driving it. The big-name donors are also common throughout this network. This includes Google, Origin, or Commonwealth Bank (all donors to Schools Plus and SVA).

As an organisation, SVA have pushed forward major education reform, including Schools Plus, Bright Spots Schools Connection, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), and Evidence for Learning (a subsidiary of SVA). There is a capacity to influence high-level reform, including federal legislation. But, this is coupled with a lack of formal responsibilities or bureaucratic transparencies. It is undemocratic. There is a concentration of power within particular institutional affiliations.

It is important to note that the median tax that corporations pay in Australia is 1.64% (when analysing data from 2014 to 2019). This is because corporations offset their taxable income by giving to a range of foundations such as this– rather than paying tax to the government (which would then be distributed to public services). It is a win-win for corporations – they get to choose where their funds go – get ‘free’ company branding – win contracts from the government – get their product into schools and classrooms – and can claim corporate social responsibility as well!

Final note

This post is a preliminary and does not pretend to answer all the questions. I would encourage more scrutiny of organisations and foundations that influence public schools and public schooling policy. They will influence how public schools are funded, what kinds of products will be included in the public school classroom, and are influencing policy in schools, at state and federal level.

Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University and 2020 Fulbright Scholar. Emma is a recipient of the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Grant (DECRA) 2021-2024. Emma’s work examines educational reform and education policy, with an interest in  school choice, privatization and marketisation. Emma’s work has held a long-term interest in the reform of public schooling across OECD countries. 

This was written with the support of an ARC DECRA

Private interests shaping public education: let’s not follow the US example

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

However, the recent wave of what has been called “corporate education reform” features a central role for the private sector that is different in at least three ways.

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.

Thought Tanks

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.

from left: Joel Malin, curriculum specialist at the Pathways Resource Center and Chris Lubienski, professor of educationChristopher 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.