Think tanks, education and elite policy actors

Year: 2015

Author: Savage, Glenn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The past decade has seen think tanks operate in sophisticated ways to influence the development of education policies. In the USA, think tanks have played a central role in the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which is purportedly a state-led initiative, but has been driven to a large extent by non-government policy actors and organisations. The most powerful think tanks in the CCSS development process have been headed by political elites and backed by significant philanthropic funding. These think tanks have worked strategically to influence the inception, development and implementation of the CCSS by producing pro-CCSS materials, building political support for the reform, and seeking to influence public debates. In this paper, I use the CCSS as an illustrative case to reflect upon the influence of think tanks in the formation of national education reforms. In doing so, I explore the consequences of growing think tank influence for the making of national political publics, with a specific focus on the role of political and economic elites in policy development processes. I begin by laying some theoretical foundations on think tanks, drawing in particular upon the work of Thomas Medvetz, who advances a relational conceptualisation of think tanks as boundary organisations that inhabit unique and intersecting positions between the fields of academia, politics, the market, and the media. I then canvas theories associated with the formation of publics and suggest that the unique positioning of think tanks means these organisations can contribute to the making of political publics and policies in ways that other organisations cannot. Having established some theoretical foundations, I then explore think tank involvement in the development of the CCSS, looking at the activities of three think tanks that are each headed by political elites and which have all received significant financial backing by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: the Hunt Institute; the Alliance for Excellent Education; and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. I conclude with a discussion of what emerging trends mean for the constitution of political publics, and make links to emerging trends in Australia. My central argument is that meanings and practices associated with political publics are being transformed as elite policy actors gain influence. Through mobilising significant political and economic power, elites work through think tanks to influence policy debates, re-frame policy problems and advocate for particular policy solutions. The new public formations that are resulting appear to be shifting the conditions of possibility for policy making in education.