By Tucker Brofft, MPP/MBA Candidate 2019
Who really influences K-12 education? There are a host of potential answers; the Department of Education sets national policies, the states set education standards, and your local school board makes decisions around curriculum. This question is also complicated by the financial crises many school districts are suffering.
School districts across the country are having difficulty supplying quality services to their students thanks to these financial difficulties, harming student success in the short and long term. This problem plagues districts nationwide and not a single state or district has been able to completely solve it. In recent years, wealthy individuals have attempted to fill these funding gaps and have become powerful influencers in education themselves. These philanthropists are attempting to use their wealth to advance their conception of “better” education.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into education through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Other philanthropists such as Paul Tudor Jones II, use their resources to expand charter school programs via private foundations. While at first glance these efforts seem as though they are providing great benefit schools and students, there are a number of potential issues to consider.
Injecting money into schools is not a sure way to create positive change. In 2009, Zuckerberg attempted to funnel more than $100 million into the Newark, New Jersey school system. Governor Chris Christie, then-mayor Cory Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg worked together to create a reform plan. Their efforts were rejected by the community and overall failed to fix the Newark school system. It also lead to a host of firings and school closures, all of which resulted in no significant reforms implemented in Newark schools.
The Gates Foundation attempted a similar plan that year in Hillsborough County, Florida, allocating $100 million to boost student performance by increasing educational evaluation measures and rewarding teacher performance. However, six years later, the district’s budget has ballooned to levels they can not handle, creating mixed results in student performance, and prompting the foundation to withhold the last $20 million. Additionally, the Gates Foundation required the county match the $100 million the foundation donated, which further hurt the plan’s chances of success.
These philanthropists do not just invest directly in schools, but have also founded or donated to education organizations. These groups can provide needed services to communities where school have fallen short, but schools must be wary of potential pitfalls when they are approached with possible million-dollar donations.
Large scale funding efforts like these need smart implementation plans to be effective. However, many districts and organizations are just not equipped to use funds effectively and these extra resources may end up causing more harm than good.
In Newark, $50 million was allocated to revamp educator evaluation tools and to fire underperforming teachers, but the district had little ability to do so as the state legislature had set rules around removing teachers. Schools were also closed as a result of this plan, but the district had not set up a good strategy for relocating students to open schools, leading to many students to have to travel long distances through dangerous neighborhoods to get to class.
Hillsborough administrators hoped to use some of the funds to raise salaries for high-performing teachers, while funneling those same educators into high needs schools. Most of this money instead went to longtime teachers, regardless of their effectiveness as educators, who continue to work in stable schools.
In both of cases, the vast amount of money that was raised did result significant institutional changes, with hundreds of educators and administrators losing their jobs thanks to curriculum and service changes, and yet students did not end up better off.
Not all funding comes with no strings attached. Gifts of money can have wide-ranging impacts on policies and organizations. Donors may want to push their own beliefs on what education should be, which may not always be the best for students or a community. Funding often comes with provisions that recipients must follow, giving donors a means of exerting control.
Philanthropists aren’t just donating directly to schools, they’re also attempting to change educational politics. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Board of Education elections had its most expensive election ever, with nearly $15 million spent campaigning for board seats. Nearly two-thirds of this money was raised by organizations and individuals supporting new charter schools, which Los Angeles had historically been kept out. Thanks to these efforts, including millions donated by Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, the majority of the LA Board of Education now members support charter schools.
We rightly get upset when we hear about billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Warren Buffett who spend millions of dollars to lobby for certain laws and policies, but shouldn’t we also be concerned when equal amount of private funds are invested in schools all while promoting certain programs or viewpoints?
Supporting education can be a worthwhile project for philanthropists, but organizations and communities need to be cautious about these endeavors. The infrastructure of a district or school may not be robust enough to use this money adequately. Those giving large swaths of their fortunes may have their own personal agendas which they push through these donations. They are not always giving support without ulterior motives.
While more funding can do a lot of good for students and our U.S. schools desperately need the money, the potential hidden costs and negative externalities involved demand debate. Stakeholders must ensure that these efforts actually improve education and that the rich are not using charity to hijack education policy. Districts, schools, and communities must consistently question these philanthropic efforts and work to prevent some of damage to education that have befallen other areas of American policy.
Tucker is a 2019 MPP/MBA Candidate at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business and Public Policy. He is currently a consultant and data analyst who helps organizations within the public, private, and voluntary sectors strategically plan and implement best practices. Past areas of work include local government, non-profit, education, sexual violence, thanatology, and homelessness.