Is Education Philanthropy Undermining Democracy?

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There is a tension between philanthropy and democracy, and one can imagine a world where wealthy philanthropists attempt to scale public policy solutions that do not have public support.

Now that I work in philanthropy, this is something I think about a lot.

Michael Massing raised this subject in his recent piece, How to Cover the 1%. Specifically, Michael called for information transparency that would allow the public to track “hedge fund managers’ backing of charter schools.”

Michael is not alone in worrying about this issue. The education reform movement, which is supported by philanthropy, is often accused of undermining democracy.

I think this accusation is mostly false when it comes to charter school expansion.

Charters have Broad Government Support 

In 1994, Bill Clinton ushered in the federal government’s charters school program.

21 years later, a bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind increased funding for charter schools by 32% to $333 million. This was less money for charter schools than the Obama administration had requested.

Additionally, 43 states and Washington D.C. provide public funding for charter schools. Charter schools operate in both extremely conservative and liberal states.

Yes, this could all be some massive corporate reform conspiracy that has infiltrated all levels of government.

But I doubt it.

In year seven of his presidency, I’m skeptical that Obama is pushing charter schools in order to please his corporate overlords.

I suspect he’s pushing charter schools because he believes they can expand educational opportunity.

Since the passage of the first charter school law in 1991, charter schools have been supported through the democratic process with bipartisan support time and time again.

Charter Schools have Broad Public Support

Polling on charter schools has generally found public support. Here is historical data from the PDK poll:

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The 2015 data showed a drop to 64% support, while an Ed Next poll with different phrasing showed support around 50%.

It is possible that wealthy people are funding propaganda that is fooling the public into supporting charter schools, but I’m skeptical that this is true given how broad and long-standing this support is.

That being said, there is evidence that the public doesn’t really understand what charter schools are, so I’m open to the notion that we should be wary from drawing too much from polls.

But to the extent you trust polls, there is a lot of evidence that the public support charter schools.

There is one sector of the public that most deviates from overall public opinion: teachers.

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Charter Schools Increase Educational Opportunity for At-Risk Youth 

Overall, charter school quality is mixed. However, in urban areas, where charter schools often serve at-risk students, the results are robust and positive.

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Very few education interventions deliver positive results as this scale.

Urban charter schools are expanding educational opportunity across the country.

In Sum 

Over the past twenty-five years, charter schools have built broad public support across the federal government, state governments, and the public as a whole.

Philanthropic support for charter school expansion is accelerating a public policy that already receives significant public financial support and is generally viewed favorably by the public.

Additionally, rigorous evidence demonstrates that charter schools in urban areas are raising student achievement for poor and minority youth.

This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. National polls could hide local variance. There are certainly cases when philanthropist support for charter school exceeds public desire. Unchecked charter support could also lead to regulatory capture that results in a lot of fraud and waste.

None of this is simple. And it is not to say that charter schools are the end all be all of education transformation. Issues like teacher recruitment and development, child poverty, career preparation, and college access – to name a few – are also extremely important.

But, at the very least, the strongest claims of education philanthropy critics appear to be false when it comes to charter schools.

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