Image by flickr user Tobi Gaulke
What role should private wealth play in shaping public institutions? This highly contentious question is often at the center of policy debates in the United States, and education policy is certainly no exception. As private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation work to expand their reach into the public education system, policymakers and citizens are raising questions about how much influence these entities should have over schools, colleges, and universities. In part, this heightened interest is driven by a perception that major foundations are using new strategies that extend beyond traditional grant making and into the realm of political advocacy. To be sure, the tax status of private foundations prohibits them from directly engaging in any partisan lobbying. However, new research has shown that the most active foundations in education are giving larger proportions of their money to national advocacy organizations and think tanks that support a specific education policy agenda.
As the public discourse has sharpened its attention on the activities of these major foundations, so, too, have researchers who study education policy. Scholars such as Janelle Scott and Sarah Reckhow, among many others, have done pioneering work into the changing landscape surrounding philanthropic foundations in the education policy arena. Along with a variety of colleagues, I have also explored these issues in the context of charter school reform in Washington State and many other states across the country. In general, this body of research has found that major donors have converged their largesse upon a network of organizations working to expand charter schools, alternative forms of teacher certification, common curriculum standards, and merit-based pay structures for teachers. In the process, the education policy community has learned a great deal about the major foundation agenda in education, and the processes by which this agenda has taken shape. Yet, as extensive as these foundations’ endowments may be, they only constitute a fraction of the dollars given among philanthropic foundations in the education sector. In the aggregate, nonmajor foundations make up a sizeable portion of the funds donated to education. In a recently published article, “Has the Elite Foundation Agenda Spread Beyond the Gates?” my co-author and I examine these lesser known foundations in order to build upon the collective understanding of this increasingly contentious relationship between private wealth and public education.
“The most active foundations in education are giving larger proportions of their money to national advocacy organizations and think tanks that support a specific education policy agenda”
We approached this research project with a special interest in determining whether or not nonmajor foundations were converging their financial capital on the same types of organizations as their more elite counterparts. New institutional theory—a dominant perspective in the field of organizational studies—suggests that private foundations should tend toward similarity over time given the uncertainty associated with engaging in contentious policy issues such as those in education. As noted above, this is precisely what has been observed in the research literature focusing on major foundations. However, a competing perspective called “field theory” suggests that nonmajor foundations may act differently given their more peripheral status. The latter perspective served as our theoretical foundation and point of departure for the analysis.
To put this alternative theory to the test, we collected data from a sample of 15 nonmajor foundations that were engaged in similar domains of education policy as the most prominent foundations (Gates, Walton, Kellogg, Ford, etc.). U.S. law stipulates that private foundations must file and publicly disclose a form 990-PF each year that details key financial information, including the organizations to which foundations awarded grants. We collected these documents from the Foundation Center’s website and used them to build a data set of 1,549 grants (totaling $162.5 million) awarded to 1,069 organizations serving some aspect of K12 education in 2010. We chose to focus on 2010 for two reasons. First, the public reporting of these documents often lags by a few years, and at the time of our data collection (2014) the available data did not extend far beyond 2010. More importantly, previous findings related to major foundations had reported findings up to 2010 and we wanted our work to be directly comparable to these organizations.
Our analysis made use of a variety of visualization techniques from social network analysis and cartography. These depictions demonstrated a few key findings. First, nonmajor foundations did show some tendencies to mirror the organizational strategies utilized by major foundations. For example, many of the foundations in our sample favored the funding of national over local advocacy organizations, charter schools over traditional public schools, and alternative certification programs over colleges of education. A substantial amount of these grants converged on widely known organizations such as K.I.P.P., Teach For America, and the American Enterprise Institute. On the other hand, a large proportion of funds awarded by our sample of nonmajor foundations went to organizations that provide college scholarships to disadvantaged students, afterschool programs, and student enrichment opportunities through the arts. In other words, nonmajor foundations that share similar policy interests as their elite counterparts often pursue unique strategies to meet their objectives. Thus, sometimes these foundations follow the dominant patterns of major foundations, but in many other instances they pursue entirely different visions of what it means to support public education.
A third key finding to emerge from our work related to the geographic distribution of the awards. Although the foundations in our sample were spread across the United States, only a trivial amount of funding was received by organizations in the South and Mountain West. Initially, we entertained the idea that the geographic disparities were simply a function of our sample, which only included one foundation from the South or Mountain West. However, of the 230 possible foundations from which we drew our sample, only 13 (5.7%) are located in the 16 states that did not receive any funding from our sample. Thus, the geographic inequality observed in our sample is likely to exist in the broader population. This may not come as a surprise since many foundation headquarters are located in dense urban cities such as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. However, the implications are potentially striking given the extent to which non-profit organizations rely on foundation dollars to operate. We suggest these geographic disparities deserve more attention, especially given the increasingly influential role foundations play in funding education reform movements.
The results shared in our paper certainly do not bring closure to the debate over the role of private wealth in public education. If anything, these findings add new dimensions to the discussion and raise additional questions. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned here is that any attempts to homogenize private foundations as a “group for itself” are problematic at best. At worst, this over-simplification could encourage some of these foundations to abandon their commitments to funding programs that provide services to many of the most vulnerable students in our public education system. With that said, it remains the case that, regardless of the perceived virtue of philanthropic funding in public education, the actual public has very little control over the way these dollars are distributed. Depending on how one answers the opening question to this entry, the latter fact may be seen as a blessed or cursed feature of private foundations.
Joseph J. Ferrare is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation and Department of Sociology at the University of Kentucky.
Katherine Reynolds is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation at Boston College.