Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics

Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics

Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics

Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics


Some of the nation's wealthiest philanthropic organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in education reform. With vast wealth and a political agenda, these foundations have helped to reshape the reform landscape in urban education. In Follow the Money, Sarah Reckhow shows where and how foundation investment in education is occurring and provides a penetrating analysis of the effects of these investments in the two largest urban districts in the United States: New York City and Los Angeles.

In New York City, centralized political control and the use of private resources have enabled rapid implementation of reform proposals. Yet this potent combination of top-down authority and outside funding also poses serious questions about transparency, responsiveness, and democratic accountability in New York. Furthermore, the sustainability of reform policies is closely linked to the political fortunes of the current mayor and his chosen school leader. While the media has highlighted the efforts of forceful reformers and dominating leaders such as Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., a slower, but possibly more transformative, set of reforms have been taking place in Los Angeles. These reforms were also funded and shaped by major foundations, but they work from the bottom up, through charter school operators managing networks of schools. This strategy has built grassroots political momentum and demand for reform in Los Angeles that is unmatched in New York City and other districts with mayoral control. Reckhow's study of Los Angeles's education system shows how democratically responsive urban school reform could occur-pairing foundation investment with broad grassroots involvement.

Bringing a sharp analytical eye and a wealth of evidence to one of the most politicized issues of our day, Follow the Money will reshape our thinking about educational reform in America.


The bully pulpit for promoting new ideas in American public education has moved out West. In November 2008, after a hard-fought presidential election, the leading national figures in education did not gather in Washington, D.C., to hear an address from President-elect Barack Obama. Instead, urban school district superintendents, current and former governors, the secretary of education, presidents of both national teachers’ unions, and leaders in the education nonprofit world convened in Seattle, Washington, to hear Bill Gates and Melinda Gates speak about the new education priorities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A gathering of national education leaders at the home of the world’s largest private foundation, rather than the seat of the national government, is emblematic of a new education reform movement driven largely by private actors. A new cohort of “Boardroom Progressives”—officers in major national foundations, leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and nontraditional urban superintendents—are leading a charge to reform public education. Due to national press coverage, leaders of education nonprofits such as Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, charter school organization founders such as Steve Barr of Green Dot Public Schools, celebrity school district leaders such as Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and foundation heads such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad have been the public faces of this movement. Many of these figures were featured in the 2010 documentary film Waiting for”Superman,” a call to arms for education reform that was heavily supported by the Gates Foundation.

Recalling the Progressives of the early 20th century, many Boardroom Progressives represent elite segments of society. They also share a suspicious view of the role of politics and special interests in education policy, as well as a common sense of idealism. Both sets of Progressives have focused on the nation’s large urban areas, regarding cities as the places most in need of radical reform. Yet the Boardroom Progressives are driven by a new set of expectations . . .

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