Who Is the Favorite Presidential Candidate of Ed Reform Funders?

Issues of education were largely ignored in the 2012 election cycle, but that appears not to be the case as the 2016 campaign takes shape. This has important implications for the work of education funders, many of whom support policy research and advocacy, and often steer funding toward initiatives that align with their policy interests.

In the last presidential race, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney held largely similar views regarding the nation’s schools, and the issue languished on the sidelines. That appears not to be the case for the upcoming election.

On issues of education, the crowded Republican field pits critics of the Common Core State Standards (most of the candidates) against one prominent, well-funded champion of the standards, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. On the Democratic side, K-12 issues have mostly taken a back seat to higher education concerns centered on the growing student debt load and the issue of college affordability. 

Last month, six candidates outlined their views on education at a New Hampshire forum sponsored by The Seventy Four, the education news website started by education reform advocate and former news anchor Campbell Brown, and heavily backed by ed reform funders. Candidates in attendance were Bush, governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin (who has since exited the race), Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. All candidates called for diminishing the federal role in education and doing more to encourage school choice through charter schools and voucher programs. They also deplored what they consider the outsized influence of teachers unions, a favorite issue of Brown.

The candidates part company, however, on the issue of Common Core. Christie, Walker, and Jindal once supported the standards, which have been adopted in their states, but now oppose them. Kasich defends his state’s adoption of the Common Core, and Bush remains a staunch defender, a position that has not gone unnoticed by pro-reform funders.

The Associated Press reported this summer that the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are among the top contributors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the school reform nonprofit launched by Bush after he left the Florida governor’s office in 2007. The two funders have given more than $6 million to the organization, from which Bush stepped down this year.

A list of donors released by Bush to the AP showed that the organization collected more than $45 million in contributions from 2007 to 2014. Other top contributors include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Exxon Mobil, BP America, Charter Schools USA, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

On the Democratic side, K-12 education has largely taken a back seat to higher education issues, especially college affordability and the ballooning student debt load. These issues have been championed by a number of higher education funders, especially the Lumina Foundation, which recently released its college affordability benchmark, a framework for determining college affordability based on what families and students can and should contribute toward the cost. Lumina and the Ford Foundation have advocated greater financial support for low-income students and reductions in student debt burdens.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has been endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, proposes a $350 billion plan that would slash student loan interest rates and create a fund to assist private colleges that target low-income students and students of color. She proposes to finance the plan by closing a series of tax loopholes that mainly benefit wealthy taxpayers. Clinton’s top rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has offered a more sweeping proposal: free tuition at all public colleges and universities, which he would fund through a transaction tax on Wall Street trades.

Early education is another ed issue that's received unprecedented attention on the Democratic side, with Clinton calling for a doubling of national investment in this area and all candidates agreeing that much more should be done. The salience of this issue underscores how early childhood education has emerged on the national agenda in the past two years. As we've reported, a number of funders have actively sought to achieve that result, most notably the Kellogg Foundation. At the same time, the Gates Foundation is now pivoting to work on early ed, suggesting that it has wide appeal among ed funders and is less divisive than other ed issues (so far, anyway).

When it comes to K-12, the AFT's endorsement of Hillary Clinton could hardly have been reassuring to the reform crowd. Clinton hasn't spoken about K-12 in much detail yet, but she's tacked to the left on a range of issues in the past year and is unlikely to excite the wealthy elites and funders keen on more choice, competition, and teacher accountability. 

While foundation are nonpartisan and can't make campaign contributions, the individuals behind these foundations most certainly can, and campaign money has flowed from ed reform circles in recent years. Winning over this crowd can yield serious dividends and, overall, it appears that Bush is best positioned in this regard. 

On the other hand, the AFT and the National Education Association spent nearly $50 million during the 2014 election cycle.