Reshaping U.S. Public Education Policy

Article excerpt

Twenty-five years ago, if I had been asked to describe the attitude of the major foundations toward education policy, my answer would have been that they were predictably supporting the reform ideas of the leading K-12 academic specialists, who were then concentrated in the best graduate schools of education, especially those at Stanford and Harvard Universities. Lots of ideas were circulating, of course, but the "hot" idea, largely emanating from Stanford, was that of "systemic reform"- the notion that we had not gotten very far by undertaking piecemeal improvements. We needed to come up with grand strategies to improve the entire public education system.

This movement was very much a collaboration between university experts, leading national K-12 organizations, and large foundations. In those days nearly all of the big foundations (Rockefeller, Ford, Pew, MacArthur, and Atlantic) had senior program officers (and separate programs) for education policy in the schools. Some of the program officers, such as Bob Schwartz of Pew, were leaders in making national policy and collaborated openly with state (and to a lesser degree federal) education officials, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. By the mid-1990s, however, the "systemic" movement had played itself out, because it could not be successfully implemented. At that point, most of the traditional large foundations abandoned their dedicated education programs and began their current adventure with strategic philanthropy, looking for quicker and more visible accomplishments.

It is interesting to put this development in the context of the earliest philanthropic foundations at the end of the nineteenth century. The origin of modern foundation philanthropy actually lies in the interests that the Slater and Jeanes Funds- and later Julius Rosenwald, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and Andrew Carnegie - had in improving what they called "Negro" education in the South: building schools and training teachers to assist black children shut out of the rudimentary public education system in the United States' most benighted region. These efforts to improve education encouraged philanthropists to consider what more they might do to improve other parts of society through philanthropic investment.

But as they created their new foundations, the philanthropists encountered a severe political backlash. The Walsh Commission federal hearings of 1915 alleged that the philanthropists were using their ill-gotten gains to subvert democratic public policy making. For roughly the next 50 years, foundations backed away from overtly supporting social policy. Then, in the mid-1960s, the Ford Foundation brazenly took an aggressive public stance on educational policy by supporting community control of schools in the Ocean Hill- Brownsville section of New York City. Congress once again took hostile notice, and the large foundations retreated to their customary caution in domestic social policy and began to support the sorts of timid reforms I mentioned at the outset of this essay. …