Why Is This Billionaire Supporting a Grassroots Ed Group? And What Should We Think About That?

The foundation run by hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura is increasingly a pillar of the ed reform funding world. The Houston-based funder is not only a prominent charter school supporter, but an active funder of research that is designed to identify effective educational practices and shape policymaking. Its funding emphasizes school autonomy, accountability, and challenging the public education status quo. 

But the Arnolds, like other top education funders, do not limit their efforts to top-down education policy advocacy; they're also investing in grassroots activism. 

One of the best examples of this is the Laura and John Arnold Foundation's recent gift of $3 million to Parent Revolution, a California-based organization that uses policy advocacy and community organizing to empower parents to take over failing schools and either replace administration and staff members, or convert the campus into a charter school.

LJAF's grant to Parent Revolution this year is double what it gave the group in 2012. So clearly, the Arnolds like where Parent Revolution is going. 

At the policy level, Parent Revolution advocates "parent trigger" laws, which allow a majority of parents at a low-performing school to force changes ranging from removal of staff or curriculum revisions to closing the school and reopening it as a charter campus. California passed the nation's first parent trigger law in 2010.

The Arnolds' $3 million grant to Parent Revolution comes on top of millions that have flowed into this organization from foundations that read like a "who's who" of reform advocates. Other funders of Parent Revolution have included the Walton Family Foundation (which gave the organization nearly $2 million last year), the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds Parent Revolution and its tactics. While the organization's executive director, Ben Austin, a longtime Los Angeles political operative and education activist, insists the group is a populist organization designed to give parents in troubled schools a greater role than simply holding fundraisers or attending PTA meetings, critics see a darker agenda. To the latter, Parent Revolution is less about empowering parents and more about serving an agenda centered on privatization and weakening public schools and teachers' unions.

While the notion of billionaires bankrolling grassroots activism seems both oxymoronic and malevolent, keep in mind that foundations of all political stripes have long put money into front-line organizing work. Look at what George Soros and the Open Society Foundations are funding on the left, or how Warren Buffett's fortune helps bankroll reproductive rights activism, or the kind of advocacy the Ford Foundation has been funding for a generation now. Right-leaning ed funders aren't doing anything different with Parent Revolution. 

Anyway, love them or hate them, Parent Revolution and other advocates of parent trigger laws are not going away, and they have massed a solid base of financial support from some of the biggest players in education philanthropy.