Sunday, May 25, 2008

Of the Education Trust and others

After Friday's entry by Jim Horn on Ed Trust's Amy Wilkins, and yesterday's entry by Philip Kovacs, I think I want to put in my two cents' worth on the discussion of philanthropy and education policy. I disagree with Education Trust on a number of policy issues, but I also disagree with Jim and Philip in their interpretation of Ed Trust and inside-the-Beltway institutional allies as illegitimate actors. I think that does not float as a concept, if for no other reason than my democratic assumption that everyone is a legitimate political actor. (Among other reasons to take this stance, there is the simple fact that since many inside-the-Beltway actors attempt to delegitimize teachers unions, it would be hypocritical of me to point out the legitimacy of teachers' perspectives and then try to undermine the right of others to push their POV.)

I think there can and should be some hard-nosed analysis of the major philanthropies currently active, but that's a little different from what I've read in the past few days. I don't agree with Stanley Fish on everything, but when I strongly disagree with something I see in the political sphere, my instinct is to academicize it. At AERA's retrospective on his 1988 book that analyzed 19th and early 20th century foundations, Jim Anderson demurred commentary on today's philanthropies. Leo Casey had the most recent shot at such an analysis a week ago, and that focused on the "seeing like a state" perspective of Ed Trust et al. I am not analyzing the philanthropies today but just pointing out some relevant questions that would be appropriate research topics.

  • What is the long-term strategy of the most active foundations such as Gates and Broad? While most folks focus on the national scene (see the links in Casey's blog entry), both foundations have spent millions trying to influence local school districts, but with somewhat different aims and tools. My impression: Gates uses its money as bait for districts to try the foundation's panacea du jour, from small schools to a certain high school curriculum to ... well, whatever strikes the foundation's key officers next year. On the other hand, Broad's strategy relies on creating a professional network of superintendents it has sponsored in multiple ways, from its chosen professional development to what I have heard is pushing its candidates in specific searches. I have good reason to conclude that the Broad Prize is the end of that process, and a promise to districts that they will be rewarded for picking Broad candidates for leadership.
  • What is the role of inside-the-Beltway organizations in those strategies? As Jim Anderson said this spring, you can't really know how the pieces all fit together unless you have access to the confidential documents (which he did for historical foundations). Yet you can probe around the edges of those roles for Education Trust and others. My impression: Since the DC-centered organizations have their own agendas, even if overlapping with the perspectives of foundation officers, this is less a matter of funding a specific agenda than with a type of philanthropic venture capital: seed a bunch of organizations with operating resources and see what they can do. That gives the funders an important reputational stake in the fortunes of their beneficiaries, but without necessarily a stake in the specific agendas of their beneficiaries. The recipients of aid can give reputational credit back to the funders if the recipients thrive. And even if they don't thrive, well, ...
  • What do the foundations' failures tell us about them? My impression: We can laugh at Ed in '08's ineffectiveness thus far, and at the collapse of the Gates small-schools initiative, but both efforts indicate serious persistence on the part of the sponsoring foundations. These are not necessarily nimble operations, but they have the depth of resources to invest heavily in strategies, even when individual strategies might well fail.
The Education Trust does not have any membership base and does not represent any constituency, but that has not stopped it from becoming an active player in Washington. Education Trust has used the Gates Foundation's support to build its operations, but its inside-the-Beltway legitimacy comes from the political work of Haycock and others and its ability to be at the table when the topic includes issues it cares about. From a stylistic standpoint, Wilkins' sharp comments (at 1:15) fit well with the type of cocksure attitudes on Capitol Hill that I discussed earlier this month on my own blog.

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