A recent issue of Time magazine (Rotten Apples, November 3, 2014) focused on the highly anticipated court ruling Vergara v. California, which struck down tenure laws in that state and produced both substantive debate and controversy.
But the article’s subtext raised a more interesting question about how money and celebrity are increasingly used to change public policy.
The case was funded by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and the cause is being popularized by former TV anchor Campbell Brown. Neither Welch nor Brown, as the article by Haley Sweetland Edwards notes, was elected,”to take on the knotty problem of fixing our public schools, but here they are anyway, fighting for what they firmly believe is in the public interest.”
Money and celebrity should not be substitutes for experience and expertise in education.
While many efforts to influence public policy are targeted on real issues, they often focus more on the activists’ personal experience and anecdotal evidence, sensationalizing the issues beyond their importance. The result in this case is the undoing of what has traditionally been done without any systemic solution for what actually needs to be done.
The trend of having billionaire businessmen and celebrities champion causes is nothing new.
It is a reflection of our modern politics. Lobbying, litigation and media manipulation are increasingly being used to bring about change while masking for genuine reform. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, FaceBook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel have all put considerable sums behind their personal educational projects.
But will their attention and generosity be good for the future of education?
Unlike the philanthropists who preceded them (the Carnegies, Rockerfellers and the more recent Waltons and Hines) the barrons of Silicon Valley provide their money with strings attached. They seek to determine the reform agenda and prescribe how things should be done.
The results have been islands of success; financially unsustainable models that cannot be scaled up to the point where they represent real change. They create adversity where collaboration is required and impose the type of quantification required by high technology and finance on education, a process not so easily quantifiable.
There is a better way.
The University of Pennsylvania here in Philadelphia offers a graduate course focused on philanthropy as part of its masters program in non-profit management. The course is not about applying for grants but about the more complicated and less understood perspective of how to give money away. A benefactor funds the course and provides a practicum in which students are provided with a significant sum of money to give away. The criteria for the funded projects is that they have to have a systemic impact and the potential to be self- sustaining. All of the funded projects are selected independent of the benefactor’s personal or political bias.
A concrete example of how this type of philanthropy works best can be seen in a grant recently awarded by the Heinz Foundation to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS). The grant aims to improve charter schools in the state by providing PCPCS with funding to train those responsible for authorizing charter schools in Pennsylvania and to offer incentives to existing charter schools to improve the quality of their performance by pursuing accreditation. The grant is in the public interest without any presumption that the benefactor knows what is best.
I was once told by an education reformer that although money is not the answer to all of the ills of our educational system it would be great to try it once. We should be ready to take advantage of the generous offers of the rich and famous who want to improve our nation’s system of education. However, those individuals interested in helping should not be presumed to always know what is best. Money unquestionably talks, but those willing to share their wealth and influence should also be prepared to listen.