Megan Tompkins-Stange recently wrote a book (Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform and the Politics of Influence) about her study of certain big foundations. I posted EduShyster’s interview with her. She writes here about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its intention to remake American education, without asking parents or educators if they agree with the foundation’s plans.

She describes the Gates Foundation’s pivot from small schools to Common Core to “personalized learning.” Each pivot involved maximum imposition on districts and states eager for new money, and the money also had strings attached. The strings designed by the Gates Foundation.

As Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family foist their experiments on other people’s children, they have no accountability for their mistakes. Sometimes they don’t even seem to acknowledge them.

She writes:

But education is a public good: a fundamental human right to which citizens in a democratic society are entitled. It isn’t a private good that can be negotiated with, or directed by, private interests. This distinction is particularly important in low-income communities that are populated predominantly by people of color, where foundations have long concentrated efforts to pursue unproven innovations. These communities are often those most in need of support, where philanthropists feel they can make the biggest impact. That’s why cities in crisis like Detroit and New Orleans have become central sites for charter schools, many of which are low in quality.

However, while foundations may want to catalyze innovation on behalf of poor children, they must be careful to avoid treating schools and communities as laboratories, particularly when poor families are so susceptible to the threat of uninformed consent. In fact citizens are beginning to push back against foundation funding of ‘proof points’ in their districts, arguing that schools are not testing grounds for wealthy philanthropists to conduct their social experiments. In 2016, for example, the California NAACP called for a national moratorium on all new charter schools.

Until recently, public opinion on the democratic responsibilities that accompany private philanthropy by the wealthy was fairly indifferent. A 2006 study, for example, found that 98 per cent of press coverage on philanthropy was neutral or positive in nature. But since then the debate has opened up, and school reform has become the centerpiece of efforts to highlight the dilemmas involved in ‘private funding for the public good’ as philanthropy is often described.

The key issue here is accountability, not stopping the flow of funding into schools that desperately need resources. Foundations are almost unique among large institutions in being free of accountability mechanisms with teeth, so long as they file some basic paperwork with the IRS and steer clear of openly partisan politics. A private corporation or a government department would not have weathered the cycle of interventions in schooling that the Gates Foundation has pursued over the last 15 years—they would have been held accountable for their failures and subject to greater scrutiny by the public.

That’s very difficult to do with foundations because they are self-funded, self-appointed and largely self-regulating institutions with no democratic mechanisms for debate and accountability, but it would certainly be possible for governments at the state and federal levels to mandate the inclusion of members of the public such as teachers, school superintendents, and independent education experts in deliberative processes around any major innovation, and to enforce regular Congressional reviews of foundations’ work whenever it aims to change national policy around public goods like education.

Foundations are notoriously insular institutions, which rarely welcome or seek out criticism, especially from the voices of affected communities. They also tend to resist attempts to regulate their activities—arguing that this would inevitably lead to political interference—but the balance of accountability has swung too far away from public oversight. Even small-scale measures like improving the diversity of boards of trustees have been opposed or watered down by foundation interests.

However, if foundations refuse to put their own house in order then democratically elected authorities have every right to step in. After all, if philanthropy is indeed ‘private funding for the public good’ (and receives tax benefits in return), then the ‘public’ must be involved in monitoring their performance.

The good news here is that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the foundations’ influence and their lack of accountability. They can mess up a district, a state, or the nation and walk away saying that their grand ideas were not implemented correctly. We have never actually heard an apology from Bill Gates about his teacher evaluation by test scores fiasco or the Common Core controversy or inBloom, nor will we get one when parents rebel against the farce of “personalized learning” by computer. Don’t expect an apology from Eli Broad for all the top-down corporatists that he sent out to school districts across the land. And the Walton family is digging in and investing hundreds of millions every year in the privatization of public education. No excuses! No apologies! No remorse!