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Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy

Susan Notes:

As Kenneth Saltman has documented, venture philanthropy (I prefer to call it vulture philanthropy) "treats schooling as a private consumable service and promotes business remedies, reforms, and assumptions with regard to public schooling." And worse.

In one research piece, I offered some "connections" showing how the Wallace Foundation corporate-politico agenda traveling with philanthropic ID operates.

Keep in mind that philanthropy dollars are actually diverted public dollars. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Broad Foundation, the Wallace Foundation--and all the rest--are using diverted public moneys to pay for what they want--from denegrating teachers' masters degree to getting young children to write like bankers.

Joanne Barkan offers information and insights worth thinking about:

Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions. They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas. Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing nonprofits or set up new ones to implement projects they've designed themselves. . . . Sycophancy is built into the structure of philanthropy: grantees shape their work to please their benefactors; they are perpetual supplicants for future funding.

Anyone who cares about public ed must follow the money and consider what it buys in the name of education reform.

by Joanne Barkan

. . . Because they are mostly free to do what they want, mega-foundations threaten democratic governance and civil society (defined as the associational life of people outside the market and independent of the state). When a foundation project fails--when, say, high-yield seeds end up forcing farmers off the land or privately operated charter schools displace and then underperform traditional public schools--the subjects of the experiment suffer, as does the general public. Yet the do-gooders can simply move on to their next project. Without countervailing forces, wealth in capitalist societies already translates into political power; big philanthropy reinforces this tendency.

Although this plutocratic sector is privately governed, it is publicly subsidized. Private foundations fall into the IRS's wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational, religious, scientific, literary, and other groups. When the creator of a mega-foundation says, "I can do what I want because it's my money," he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of the wealth--35 percent or more, depending on tax rates--has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use. . . .

Mega-foundations are more powerful now than in the twentieth century--not only because of their greater number, but also because of the context in which they operate: dwindling government resources for public goods and services, the drive to privatize what remains of the public sector, an increased concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, celebration of the rich for nothing more than their accumulation of money, virtually unlimited private financing of political campaigns, and the unenforced (perhaps unenforceable) separation of legal educational activities from illegal lobbying and political campaigning. In this context, big philanthropy has too much clout. . . .

You need to read the full article. Go here and while you're at the Dissent site, support them for their continuing look at forces shaping public education policy.

Joanne Barkan is a writer based in New York City and Truro, Massachusetts. Her other articles on the education reform movement and big philanthropy can be found here.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences, Summer 2013.

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in the Fall 2013 print issue of Dissent under the title "Big Philanthropy vs. Democracy: The Plutocrats Go to School."

— Joanne Barkan with Ohanian notes


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