On Corporate Power | Private Philanthropy Vs Public Education

Michael Barker explores the leading role played by private philanthropic foundations in the accelerating corporatisation of public education. Unless this relationship is understood and its impact resisted, he warns, we could be seeing the end of public education as we know it, with disastrous consequences.

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The Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago (Photo: I, Nikopoley)

The ruling class has a long history of intervening in all matters educational to stymie the intellectual advancement of the working class, and over the past century philanthropic foundations have more than proved their utility in waging class warfare on behalf of their elite benefactors.

While in the past the major foundations leading this attack against democracy have been the big three philanthropic institutions, the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations, other bodies have now stepped up to the mark, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Fund.

According to Kenneth Saltman, author of The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), these new philanthropic organizations should be seen as being “at the forefront of a right-wing movement to corporatize education”; with such philanthropy “contribut[ing] to both the privatization of public schooling as well as the transformation of public schooling that is based on the model of corporate culture-from voucher schemes to charter schools to the remaking of teacher education, educational leadership, and classrooms.” [1]

Saltman argues that these new foundations dispense their largesses in a manner that “departs radically” from the “scientific” industrial philanthropy of old, and he suggests that their dispensations should fall under the remit of what he refers to as “venture philanthropy” (VP).

While VP “is largely represented in both mass media and educational policy literature as generosity, care, and goodwill,” Saltman observes that, in reality, it “is nothing short of a coordinated effort to destroy public education.”[2]

Here one should be clear that:

VP is modelled on venture capital and the investments in the technology boom of the early 1990s. VP not only pushes privatisation and deregulation, the most significant policy dictates of neoliberalism, but it is also consistent with the steady expansion of neoliberal language and rationales in public education, including the increasing centrality of business terms to describe educational reforms and policies: choice, competition, efficiency, accountability, monopoly, turnaround, and failure. Likewise, VP treats giving to public schooling as a “social investment” that, like venture capital, must begin with a business plan, involve quantitative measurement of efficacy, be replicable to be “brought to scale,” and ideally “leverage” public spending in ways compatible with the strategic donor. (p.2)

In contrast to this “active” approach to philanthropy, Saltman notes that the “Long-standing passive giving by such institutions as the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations has receded” within the educational sphere.[3]

Unfortunately, he then fails to explain how the very interventionist activities of the older foundations could be described as passive – instead, he simply asserts that VP differs significantly from past philanthropic practices which allegedly supported a broader range of political causes (true), where funds were “not closely controlled and directed in its uses” (false).

Although Saltman acknowledges that such philanthropy practices (of old) were certainly “beholden to a logic of cultural imperialism,” he suggests it was still “marked by a spirit of public obligation and deeply embedded in a liberal democratic ethos.”[4] Yet, there is arguably more continuity than difference (or what Saltman refers to as “a radical break”) between VP and scientific philanthropy.[5]

Indeed, in both cases the primary ideological reason for ruling class elites to engage in organised philanthropy was their desire to wage class warfare at the taxpayers’ expense.[6] One might say that the major differences in strategies between the old and “new old” philanthropy of the present day simply resulted from the fact that the current form of philanthropic-class-warfare being waged on humanity was considered untenable in the past, when class politics were consciously espoused by a sizable proportion of the working class.

It was this combativeness and general level of class consciousness that forced more far-sighted industrial capitalists and their foundations to lend their “support… for various welfare state protections in part as a defense against radical organizing and fears about the replacement of a capitalist economy with a socialist or communist one.”[7]

Resting our focus on this point for a moment, it is important to remember that these philanthropic efforts were combined with the equally important and very violent repression of the working class.

Seen in this light, VP should simply be seen as just one of the many success stories of the scientific philanthropy movement, not as a “radical break” with the past. So while the projects of the early philanthropists “were defined through the public interest and appear on one level to be concerned with redistributive efforts toward ameliorating inequalities in wealth and income,” these “concerns” should be seen for what they really are, public propaganda for class warfare.[8]

Scientific philanthropists sought not simply to use private money for public gain but to serve ruling class interests in a number of ways. These conservative intents include delegitimating socialist politics and movements, establishing institutions that directly serve elites, assuring social reform rather than radical structural change, and creating social networks to secure the status of elites, Additionally, foundations have supported social programs such as social security to assuage depression-era labor unrest, and they worked to support tax laws that prohibited giving to political parties, support for civil rights and minority education projects in part to diffuse minority interest and support for radical movements; and foundations supported “democracy promotion” projects overseas that would increase the likelihood of political economic formations tending toward liberal capitalism rather than socialism or communism. [Andrew] Carnegie exhorted the super-rich to found universities, and many did, such as Cornell, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and [John D.] Rockefeller’s University of Chicago. Stanford and Chicago have been hotbeds of neoliberal thought: University of Chicago arguably was the birthplace of neoliberalism under Milton Friedman (some would claim London School of Economics and Hayek) and leaders of the push to privatize public schooling are associated with the Hoover Institution housed at Stanford. This is not to say that there has been no progressive or radical political thought coming out of these universities but rather a recognition of the centrality of foundations to the early formation of educational policies that have left a conservative legacy. (p.66)

Now that public resistance has been sufficiently weakened by capital’s onslaught against life, modern-day liberal elites now feel able to show their true class colours by openly joining with the “political right” (which “has dwarfed the liberal involvement with VP”) and engaging in VP: thus it should be no surprise that while the…

… Obama administration rejects vouchers, it nonetheless emphatically champions charter schools expansion, numerical test-orientated definitions of student achievement, “data driven” policymaking, and early indications of threats to both teacher education and teacher unions. Most significantly, Obama appears to accept the VP idea of “leverage” framing of public schools needing to be forced to compete and “choice” as a mechanism to do so. Obama’s embrace of charter schooling means that one of the central VP projects is at the center of the federal agenda. (pp.51-2)

Nevertheless, liberal philanthropists, in addition to supporting neoliberal attacks on the public, are well-known for supporting reforms, like teacher professionalisation, that appear to run counter to neoliberal demands for the deregulation of teacher education; but nevertheless still fit neatly within ruling class demands for class warfare by other means.

Liberal philanthropists such as the Carnegie Corporation thus support ongoing professional development for teachers; although the “clear emphasis in this approach is on improving teaching as practice and process while the emphasis on ‘performance based assessment’ presumes measurable ‘achievement’ and a linkage of test-based achievement to the reform of teacher practices.”[9]

Of course, the difference between the activities of such old-line liberal philanthropists and VP is not huge, so it is appropriate that the Carnegie Corporation “recently championed” the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundations neoliberal efforts “to tie the preparation of teachers and administrators to the test outcomes of candidates students.”[10]

Contrary to Saltman’s misleading assertions, the management of the older liberal foundations and the neoliberal VP’s of today, like the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation, are not radically different but are intimately entwined.

For example, two current Broad Foundation board members formerly worked at the heart of the liberal foundation establishment. These being Barry Munitz, who recently retired as the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and Henry Cisneros, who is a former board member of the Rockefeller Foundation. Cisneros one might add, also currently serves on the Gates Foundation’s US programmes advisory panel, as does another former Rockefeller Foundation trustee who chairs the panel, Ann Fudge.

Furthermore, recent Gates Foundation trustee, Tachi Yamada, was a former trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; whilst the former chair of the Gates Foundations global development program advisory panel, Rajat Gupta, is a former Rockefeller Foundation trustee.

It is evident that the advancement of the foundation world’s anti-democratic agenda for education is highly problematic for US citizens, but given knowledge of the historical operations of philanthropic foundations it is hardly unexpected that they would have taken such a lead role in forcing such regressive policies on the public.

What is more unexpected (and equally problematic) is that critical scholars, like Saltman, should feel obliged to write that “new old Marxists embrace an anti-democratic vanguardism and class reductionism” which, “Like neoliberalism, its nemesis, … is hopelessly bound to economism.”[11]

Here Saltman is specifically referring to educational theorists, most specifically those Marxist scholars allied with Dave Hill (whom he identifies as “a leader of this perspective”), a perspective which Saltman counts as including Glen Rikowski, Peter McLamn, Mike Cole, Rich Gibson, and Ramin Farahmandpur – many of whom contributors to the book Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory (Lexington Books, 2002).[12]

In their place, Saltman would rather his readers engage with the work of explicitly post-Marxist educational theorists, such as Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux, who collaborated to write Postmodern Education: Politics, Culture and Social Criticism (University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

Either way, despite Saltman’s aversion to “new old” Marxism, and his preference for highlighting differences between old line philanthropy and venture philanthropy, he still remains one of a handful of scholars writing about philanthropy from a critical perspective, and his book sheds much needed light on recent historical developments in this area.

Concerned members of the public would do well to follow his prescriptions for actions that can be taken right not to repeal the insidious influence of philanthropic elites.

For one, it would be eminently sensible to end tax breaks for all foundations. Secondly, any private money that is currently distributed by philanthropic foundations should be undertaken under public democratic control, which is linked to the need to nationalise foundation wealth. Finally, “the application of economism to educational reform” must be ended, and action must be taken to encourage political developments that would create a world in which people have a genuine interest in ending exploitation and cooperating with one another.[13]

Click here for the footnotes.

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Michael Barker is a researcher and activist. His ‘On Corporate Power’ column appears monthly in Ceasefire. He tweets at @mbarker_mike

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Private Philanthropy Vs Public Education [Footnotes] | Ceasefire Magazine
Nov 23, 2011 3:24

[…] Footnotes for the latest essay in the ‘On Corporate Power’ series. “Private Philanthropy Vs Public Education” […]

Michael James Barker’s Weblog
Nov 23, 2011 9:27

[…] Private Philanthropy Vs Public Education, Ceasefire Magazine, November 23, 2011. […]

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Mar 16, 2012 6:20

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