Since America isn't, say, France, many of the most important decisions about K-12 education are made at the state and local level. It's state legislatures, for example, that write the laws governing teacher employment and tenure. And so it's not surprising that some of the biggest education donors concentrate their resources on making change in their home states.
We come across these folks all the time: Funders like Peter Buck of Connecticut, David Tepper and Alan Fournier of New Jersey, Art Pope of North Carolina or David Welch of California. Nearly all are into charter schools and many are gunning to gut teacher tenure.
Regardless of whether you agree with this agenda or not, it's hard to deny that there is something troubling about the outsized power that these private individuals wield over what's often thought of as America's most democratic institution.
Of course, the counter-argument such funders make is that their money is often dwarfed by the much greater spending of teacher unions in state capitols.
We'll leave that debate for another day. Here, we dig into yet another 800-pound gorilla on a state's education scene: Rex Sinquefield of Missouri.
While you've probably never heard of him, Sinquefield is anything but low profile for those who do ed work in Missouri.
Raised in Saint Vincent Home for Children in St. Louis, Sinquefield earned a business degree from Saint Louis University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He then went on to develop some of the nation’s first index funds and formed Dimensional Fund Advisors in 1981, which today oversees more than $350 billion in global assets. After retiring in 2005, Sinquefield returned to the Show Me State with the hopes of, as he puts it, "using his experience and success to invest in more philanthropic ventures."
According to their foundation website, Rex Sinquefield and wife Jeanne have "dedicated their retirements to helping future generations."
In short, Sinquefield is yet one more loaded finance guy trying to shape public life, and education in particular.
The Sinquefield Foundation gives somewhere in the neighborhood of a few million annually, which is not big money in the philanthropshere writ large. But it is big money in Missouri, which is where most of Sinquefield's giving is targeted, and particularly in St. Louis.
What's more, the effect of that philanthropic giving is greatly amplified by the big money that Sinquefield has poured into state political races and ballot initiatives—at least $28 million since 2007, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
We've looked at how other wealthy state-level ed reformers have also worked both the philanthropic and political angles. It's a potent combination.
Sinquefield's exact net worth is unknown but some describe him as a billionaire. Both Sinquefield and Jeanne serve on many boards and are active in civic life. He's a life trustee of DePaul University and serves on the boards of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri History Museum, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and his alma mater St. Louis University, to name a few.
Jeanne is a director of the Neurofeedback and Applied Neuroscience Foundation, serves on University of Missouri's Steering Committee and is an active musician in the Columbia Civic Symphony Orchestra and the Folk String Orchestra.
Central to understanding the couple's education philanthropy is Sinquefield's involvement with the Show Me Institute (SMI), which he cofounded and where he serves as president. The institute aims to make big changes to the state's education system, including ending teacher tenure and enacting vouchers in the form of "tuition tax credits," along with other efforts that critics say would privatize education in the state.
SMI is a member of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which advances conservative ideas at the state level, and many of the education initiatives that SMI promotes closely track with ALEC proposals, such as parent trigger legislation, which empowers parents to transform a school into a charter if it is performing poorly. The Sinquefields have been a steady funder of SMI, to the tune of around $1 million annually.
The couple has also given least $925,000 to Teachgreat.org, which was organized to attack teacher tenure. Smaller sums have gone to the Missouri Education Reform Roundtable and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
Beyond his efforts to directly influence ed policy in Missouri, Sinquefield has promoted policy ideas that would be likely to limit the financial resources available for public education—in particular an effort to abolish the municipal income tax in St. Louis and Kansas City. He's also funded work to abolish the state income tax and to limit property taxes.
Some of Sinquefield's ideas have created controversy, such as when he quoted a columnist who said the Ku Klux Klan designed the public school system to hurt "African American children permanently."
It should be noted that not all of Sinquefield's education philanthropy has an ideological agenda. In 2007, he and his wife founded the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Sinquefield's alma mater St. Louis University has also received money recently. In addition, the University of Missouri-Columbia, where Jeanne serves on the steering committee and from where all three Sinquefield children graduated, received a large $1.4 million gift in 2013.
The couple has also been a steady funder of the Boy & Girl Scouts of America where Jeanne has a 25-year history with the organization, having served as a den mother, a chair of a Boy Scout troop, a District Chairperson, and a council board member.