This Scholar Has Been Tracking Ed Reform Funders for Years. What's She Learned?

For all the influence that philanthropy has on America and the world, it’s never been a subject that’s drawn much attention from academic researchers. While more university centers have sprung up to focus on philanthropy, the insights that scholarship offers into foundations and wealthy donors—and how they impact the rest of us—are still pretty slim. When I was first getting into this subject, I was shocked to find that there’s a lot more research on, say, welfare recipients than on billionaire mega-donors.

This gap makes a scholar like Sarah Reckhow all the more valuable. Reckhow is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and one of the top researchers digging into education philanthropy. In addition to various papers and articles, Reckhow is author of the 2013 book Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics.

If you’re going to sink years of your life into studying philanthropy, education giving is a great focus. Nowhere have funders shaken things up more with big money than in the K–12 school system, spending billions of dollars over the past 15 years to boost student achievement. The largest fundersmost notably the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundationshave pushed charter schools, new ways of training teachers and holding them accountable, and various other reforms. They’ve also embraced political activism, and their influence over K–12 has been hugely controversial. After all, public schools have long been considered as among the most democratic of all American institutions.

The ed reform funders are the main subject of Reckhow’s research, which she started as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Reckhow stumbled on this area while working as a research assistant on a school reform project in Oaklandwhich she says opened her eyes to the influence of foundations over urban education. She’s been obsessed with this area ever since, even as her work has branched into related subjects, like the use of research evidence in the development of teacher quality policy debates.

At Inside Philanthropy, we’re also pretty obsessed with the ed reform funders, and have found Reckhow’s research super-valuable. So I was happy to catch up with her the other day to see what broad takeaways she might be willing to share from her years of drilling into this controversial area of philanthropy. Here are a few key points she made.

Ed Funders Have Climbed Into the Driver’s Seat in a Big Way

Compared to earlier funders, today’s ed reformers take a very activist, hands-on approach with their giving in urban school systems, says Reckhow. While this is hardly news—and has been a frequent complaint of critics who don’t think private funders should be making policy—Reckhow offers some insights into how this controlling reflex came about. “Foundations looked back at the Annenberg Challenge and learned some lessons,” she said. That $500 million effort to improve public schools in the 1990sthen the largest ed gift in historyplaced huge discretion in the hands on local grantees. It was also largely seen as a bust.

The takeaway from Annenberg for a new generation of funders was that if you’re putting up big money to boost student achievement, you want to call the shots as much as you can. “Foundations have become more the locus of control,” says Reckhow, energetically putting forth their own visions and strategies for improving schools. Reckhow’s research depicts funders as policy entrepreneurs working to win elite and public support for their ideas, but also as political actors who pick sides in electoral battles and aren’t afraid of throwing around their weight. One thing is for sure: These highly directed funders are not just writing checks.

We’ve written at IP about this same shift toward activist philanthropy in other areas of giving. One driver, here, is that many of the new foundations are controlled by living donors who built business empires and are used to calling the shots. Bill Gates and Eli Broad are archetypal examples.  

Reform Funders Have Increasingly Targeted Their Giving

America’s K-12 school system is vast, costing $600 billion a year to run. Even the largest foundations have tiny resources in comparison, and so it is not surprising that ed funders have increasingly focused their resources for impact. Funding dollars have become “more geographically concentrated,” Reckhow says, with the lion’s share of resources going to urban areas with some of the nation’s poorest students and lowest performing schools. In many cases, funders have teamed up to pour money jointly into the same citiescollaboration made possible by the fact that so many reform funders have the same vision. “They share objectives to a greater degree than in the past,” Reckhow says.

Reckhow’s book offers an in-depth look at how the new, super-sized ed philanthropy has played out in two of the largest school systems in the nation, New York and Los Angeles. In both cities, she says, the new funders have achieved significant changes in education policy. But reform funders have also focused major resources in a number of smaller cities, such as New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C.

A frustration of charter schools advocates is that such schools still only educate under 5 percent of all K–12 students. Targeting funds is one way to address the scaling challenge: Sure, charters might only enroll a sliver of kids nation-wide, but if these schools can reach a significant fraction of the poorest students in top urban school districts, that’s something. “There’s been a recognition that you need to capture more market share,” Reckhow says. So it is that a group of reform funders, led by the Broad Foundation, are now pressing a new effort to move half of all students in Los Angeles into charter schools, as we’ve recently reported.

Ed Reform Funders Have Mastered Policy and Advocacy

Another big change in ed philanthropy that Reckhow points to is the huge rise in funding for research studies aimed at advancing a particular agenda, as well as funding for advocacy. And while these are hardly new tactics in public policy battles, Reckhow notes how they have really swept the ed world at a new level in recent years—with a lot of that work fueled by reform funders. In a paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year, Reckhow and coauthor Megan Tompkins-Stange documented a huge rise in spending for national advocacy by the Broad and Gates foundations, with such grantmaking by these two players soaring from around $25 million in 2005 to $60 million in 2010.

We’ve written about this same trend at Inside Philanthropy, looking most notably at the striking rise in funding by the Walton Family Foundation for policy groups in Washington and beyond. But it’s not just places like the American Enterprise Institute that are raking in ed grants; many more action-oriented education groups now have policy shops that pump out studies, evaluations, and issue briefs. Reckhow cites the New Teacher Project as an example of this trend. Over time, that organization—founded to get more good teachers into high-needs schools—has added a big research dimension to its work.

The upshot of all this, Reckhow notes, is that there’s a lot more research and policy work out there on ed issuesbut the slice of such work that is truly impartial has gotten smaller.

An Unreconciled Contradiction

Reckhow doesn’t take sides in the famously polarized ed wars, and as a researcher, she’s been far more concerned with studying the influence of ed funders than commenting on their impact on educational outcomes. Still, she can’t resist quietly zinging funders for not grappling with how their support of charters may be hurting more traditional public schools, as financial resources and better students are drained away from those institutions.

Reckhow notes that a number of urban school reform funders have been interested both in scaling up charter and improving existing schools. But they “haven’t fully reconciled the contradiction” between these two goals.”

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The current era of ed reform philanthropy has now been going strong for around 15 years, and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Ultimately, Reckhow sees the scaling up of charters in key cities as the movement’s biggest achievement to date in terms of remaking how K–12 works in America. It’s “still a fraction of the student population,” Reckhow says, “but that’s mattered.”

As for two other main projects of ed fundersgreater teacher accountability and changing how students learn with the Common CoreReckhow puts those in the “wait-and-see” category. It’s still too early to know how much impact funders will have on these fronts.

Reckhow suggests that ed funders could be more successful with different tactics. After years of looking closely at how the ed policy sausage gets made when funders are in the kitchen, Reckhow argues that the top-down, secretive tactics that ed reform funders have often used to get their way can be counter-productive. She closes her book with this advice: “Foundation-funded reforms will have greater staying power if they can prosper with transparency and lively democratic politics.”