Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Eli Broad's mixed messages*

A bit more context for understanding the complexities of the West Coast chapter of the education reform movement and the question of the relationship between philanthropy and influence.

David Sirota recently posted some interesting thoughts on the latter:
Later in his discussion, [Al] Gore said that “democracy has been hacked” by moneyed interests. Then, in response to a question about tech billionaires spending big on allegedly philanthropic enterprises, he said: “That’s a good thing, as long as the rest of us don’t ever fall prey to the illusion that charity is going to do the job of what democracy needs to do.”

Those latter comments come only a few weeks after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a $120 million donation to San Francisco-area schools. That donation came only a few years after California considered a ballot measure to increase funding for its schools. Zuckerberg was notably absent from the campaign to pass the measure.

That detail is germane to Gore’s point about charity and democracy. Indeed, there seems to be a trend of billionaires and tech firms making private donations to public institutions ostensibly with the goal of improving public services. Yet, many of these billionaires are absent from efforts to raise public resources for those same institutions. Zuckerberg is only one example.

For instance, hedge funders make big donations to charter schools. Yet, the hedge fund industry lobbies against higher taxes that would generate new revenue for education.

Likewise, there are the Koch Brothers, who simultaneously finance the nationwide anti-tax movement while making huge donations to public institutions.

Meanwhile, Microsoft boasts about making donations to schools, while the company has opposed proposals to increase taxes to fund those schools.

To understand the conflict between democracy and this kind of philanthropy, remember that private donations typically come with conditions about how the money must be allocated. In education, those conditions can be about anything from curriculum to testing standards to school structure. No matter what the conditions are, though, they effectively circumvent the democratic process and dictate policy to public institutions. While those institutions can reject a private donor's money, they are often desperate for resources.

In this, we see a vicious cycle that undermines democratic control. Big money interests use anti-democratic campaign finance laws to fund anti-tax policies that deprive public institutions of resources. Those policies make public institutions desperate for private resources. When philanthropists offer those resources, they often make the money contingent on public officials relinquishing democratic control and acceding to ideological demands.

Disruption theory is usually the defense of all this—the hypothesis being that billionaire cash is the only way to force public institutions to do what they supposedly need to do. But whether or not you believe that theory, Gore is correct: It isn't democratic. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
We've already discussed how Bill Gates sped up the adoption of Common Core (and arguably circumvented much of the vetting and quality control of the slower process). What we haven't mentioned and what Sirota surprisingly omits is the role of billionaire Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Superintendents Academy and unquestionably one of the most influential figures in the education reform movement.

Broad was recently involved in a recent minor scandal that is remarkably relevant to Sirota's argument.
A state investigation into a network of nonprofit groups that funneled $11 million into initiative campaigns in California last year has revealed the identities of dozens of previously hidden donors to the various organizations.

Those contributors include owners of the Gap Inc., for which California First Lady Anne Gust Brown was once a top executive, investor Charles Schwab and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad. The groups they donated to gave money to other organizations, which gave to the campaigns.

One of the campaigns was an effort to derail a 2012 tax measure pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown -- which Broad had said he supported. The other supported a separate initiative that would have limited the power of labor unions to raise political cash.

The Fisher family, which owns the Gap, gave more than $9 million to Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based group which eventually sent millions to an Arizona-based non-profit that ultimately wound up in a California campaign committee. Gust Brown formerly was the company’s chief administrative officer.

San Francisco investor Schwab gave more than $6.2 million to the same group. Broad gave $1 million despite his stated support for higher taxes on the wealthy.
If you're interested in a highly critical but well-researched view of the Broad Academy, check out The Broad Report, a blog that consists almost entirely of excerpts of newspaper and magazine stories about graduates of the Academy, pretty much all negative but presented with a minimum of editorializing. The selection is certainly biased but the stories are allowed to speak for themselves. If you're in a hurry, check out the Parents' Guide, a lengthy but pithy post that lays out the blogger's concerns about Academy's influence, supported with an extensive set of links to supporting articles.

* Assuming we define political contributions as a form of free speech.

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