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Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, Policy Patrons. Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence

Annabelle Berthiaume
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Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, Policy Patrons. Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence

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1In her book Policy Patrons. Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, Megan Tompkins-Stange, assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, examines the recent commitment of philanthropic foundations to educational policy reform in the United States. She analyzes how these organizations use the returns from the investment of their endowment on the financial markets to finance other organizations, research and various activities related to the advancement of their mission (lobbying, coalition building, media presence, etc.). By providing access to the decision- making and communication processes as well as the investment strategies of four of the twenty largest foundations working in the US education field—Ford Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—the author makes an original contribution to the age-old debate about the role which philanthropic foundations can play in public policy reform in a liberal democracy. Rather than starting with a political- philosophical discussion on the expected role of the private sector in solving a public problem, the author begins with a field investigation to determine precisely how these foundations deploy their influence.

2To question the role of foundations in educational policy reform, Tompkins-Stange analyzes archival documents and holds interviews with senior representatives of the studied foundations as well as with external observers (academics, politicians, consultants and funded groups). While the commitment of philanthropic foundations to education policy reform is not new in itself, the last twenty years have been marked by an increase in the number of mega-foundations—whose capital exceeds one billion dollars—as well as by the formation of coalitions of foundations—who have acquired sufficient financial clout to influence policy-making on certain issues (e.g., merit pay for teachers correlated with the pupils’ academic performance; increase in the minimum amount of daily hours of instruction; implementation of standardized assessments at state or federal levels). Cross-examining four case studies, the author proposes a grounded theory approach to the commitment of philanthropic foundations. She thereby tries to understand certain distinctions between the “traditional” foundations like Kellogg and Ford, founded in the 1930s, and the “new” foundations created in the early 2000s, such as the Gates and Broad foundations.

3The book is divided into seven chapters. After an introduction on the influence of philanthropy on educational policies, the second chapter presents the organizational history, funding priorities and expertise of the four studied foundations with regard to policy reform. The third chapter presents the conceptual framework formed by the following four elements: the relationship of the foundations to the donors; the selection of partners whom they will solicit to initiate the idea of an educational reform; their definition of the “problems” that they intend to intervene in; as well as their method of assessing the impact of their investments. These elements —which the author then describes in more detail in the subsequent two chapters— allow to distinguish between the foundations’ approaches in terms of public policy reform. This analysis leads the author to address, in the sixth chapter, certain democratic and political issues related to the predominance of a trend that has prevailed for about a decade and a half among philanthropic foundations: the focus on obtaining quick outcomes. The book concludes with a general discussion on the role of foundations in a liberal democracy.

4In this way, Tompkins-Stange conceptualizes the relationship of philanthropic foundations to educational policy reforms as being on a spectrum that ranges from a outcome-oriented model of engagement on the one end to a model oriented towards the field on the other. Based on the values and institutional standards of the foundations under study, the author asks four questions, to be presented in the following, that position these foundations within this spectrum.

5Who retains the strategic control of the funded project? This first question refers to control (centralized or decentralized) and to the link between donor and donee in the execution of the financed project. Thus, philanthropic foundations that adopt an outcome-oriented approach are more likely to channel or direct their donees: they engage them as one “would hire a contractor” (p. 70). For field-oriented foundations, the delegation of the strategic control over the project to the donee is part and parcel of the goal. In this way, they can be said to have a laissez-faire management style for as long as the funded project respects the donor’s overall direction.

6How do foundations choose their partners to influence educational policies? The outcome-oriented foundations, which are more strategic, prefer a “grasstops” approach, that is to say, an approach that mobilizes political elites (mayors, senators, administrators) and experts (academics, consultants). Conversely, grassroots foundations advocate a slower approach, engaging community organizations, teacher unions and parents.

7How do the foundations frame the problem they are working on? To define this third question, the author juxtaposes two visions: one, more “technical,” refers to a rational and linear conception of social problems (for outcome-oriented foundations), while the other, more “adaptive,” takes into account the complexity of cultural or systemic factors that influence the problems identified by the field-oriented foundations.

8Finally, how do foundations evaluate the results of their investments? This time, Tompkins-Stange distinguishes between a quantifiable assessment, attributed to the outcome-oriented approach, and an “integrated assessment,” associated with the field-oriented approach. In this case, the distinction is based on the use that foundations make of measures (quantitative and qualitative) and of argumentative rhetoric (causality/plausibility), depending on their orientation.

9The author concludes by discussing the political and democratic issues raised by the influence of foundations on educational reforms. She uses excerpts of interviews with representatives of foundations who observe changes in the philanthropic landscape, sometimes with some discomfort. A representative from the Gates Foundation, for example, comments on the apparent convergence of policy proposals by the government, corporations and social groups. According to him, anyone who has spent some time observing this scene would quickly realize “that all these organizations suddenly singing from the same book of prayers are receiving money from the same [foundation]. [The Gates Foundation funds] almost everyone who does advocacy” (p. 117). In this sense, he recognizes the power of large foundations to change the focus of public policies without this having first been subjected to public debate.

10For the author, these alliances between foundations and the government also raise concern as to the longevity of the invested efforts. For example, past experience has shown that a change in a government administration or the departure of a key person can cause a project to fold. Also, a change in a foundation’s priorities may mean the end of project funding in low-income communities. This is what happened with the Gates Foundation’s Small Schools initiative, launched in the early 2000s, which aimed to create smaller learning environments, assumed to be more favorable to teaching high schoolers. Not having yielded the expected results, the project was dropped in 2006.

  • 1 Reich Rob, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 2013, http://bostonreview.net/forum/fou (...)
  • 2 Reich Rob, Cordelli Chiara, Bernoholz Lucy (eds.), Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, Chicago, U (...)
  • 3 Katz N. Stanley, “Reshaping U.S. Public Education Policy,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Sprin (...)
  • 4 Scott Janelle, “Foundations and the Development of the U.S. Charter School Policy-Planning Network: (...)
  • 5 Reckhow Sarah, Snyder Jeffrey, “The expanding role of philanthropy in education politics,” Educatio (...)

11While acknowledging that these foundations do share the common goal of changing educational policies through their funding strategy, Tompkins-Stange also identifies the differences between the approaches pursued by these foundations throughout their evolution. In addition, she reveals views and concerns expressed by top-level representatives of foundations. She thereby contributes to the study of the field linking education and philanthropy and, more broadly, to the questions of the role of foundations in a liberal democracy. In this way, she echoes the critical dialogues with Reich1 published in the Boston Review, the book edited by Reich, Cordelli and Bernholz,2 as well as the works of Katz,3 Scott4 and Reckhow and Snyder.5

  • 6 Tompkins-Stange Megan, Why should Bill Gates decide how our children should be educated?” Transfor (...)
  • 7 Tompkins-Stange Megan, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, education reform, and the politics of influenc (...)

12Finally, it is interesting to note that since the publication of Policy Patrons, the author has adopted a more critical tone towards this craze about the outcome-oriented approach.6 In March 2017, she said she was “skeptical but not cynical” of the normalization of the discourse, values and practices that render this approach as being “common-sensical”7. Managerial and technological expertise has become a near-imperative for understanding the flaws of educational policies and to solving them by focusing on efficiency, competition and, above all, return on investment. In addition to challenging the rigor of some of the literature consulted by philanthropic foundations, Tompkins-Stange criticizes their lack of transparency in their strategic decision-making. In her view, the outcome-oriented approach neglects longer-term impacts, shifts local actors away from decision-making, and focuses only on issues that ensure a rapid return on investment. These orientations have a direct impact on the communities in which the projects are carried out, yet without the communities having any voice in those projects. For it to be otherwise, foundations must first agree to openly participate in the age-old debate about their role in a liberal democracy rather than dodging it...

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Notes

1 Reich Rob, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 2013, http://bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy. See also the critical reviews.

2 Reich Rob, Cordelli Chiara, Bernoholz Lucy (eds.), Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

3 Katz N. Stanley, “Reshaping U.S. Public Education Policy,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2013, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/reshaping_u.s._public_education_policy.

4 Scott Janelle, “Foundations and the Development of the U.S. Charter School Policy-Planning Network: Implications for Democratic Schooling and Civil Rights,” National Society for the Study of Education, 114, 2, 2015, 131–147 ; Scott Janelle, “The Politics of Venture Philanthropy in Charter School Policy and Advocacy,” Educational Policy, 23, 1, 2009, 106–136

5 Reckhow Sarah, Snyder Jeffrey, “The expanding role of philanthropy in education politics,” Educational Researcher, 43, 4, 2014, 186–195.

6 Tompkins-Stange Megan, Why should Bill Gates decide how our children should be educated?” Transformation, September 14, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/megan-tompkins-stange/why-should-bill-gates-decide-how-our-children-will-be-educated.

7 Tompkins-Stange Megan, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, education reform, and the politics of influence, March 20, 2017, http://fordschool.umich.edu/video/2017/megan-tompkins-stange-policy-patrons-philanthropy-education-reform-and-politics-influence.

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Annabelle Berthiaume, « Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, Policy Patrons. Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2017, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2017, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/23708

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Annabelle Berthiaume

Doctoral student, School of Social Work, McGill University, Montreal.

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