Facebook Twitter

Q&A: How have large donations affected education policy in New York City?

The expansion of charter schools, the movement to break New York City’s large schools into smaller ones, and the push to teach computer science have something in common: the influence of philanthropy.

Though contributions from big donors amount to only a fraction of the city’s education spending, they still have a real impact on public school policy, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College. Henig recently co-authored a book called “The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy and Reform,” which details how powerful individuals and organizations increasingly use donations to advance policies they support.

For politicians everywhere, the tension is clear: As they welcome funds to support schools, they also run the risk of allowing, or appearing to allow, others to influence their agendas.

Philanthropy’s influence grew under the Bloomberg administration, which courted big donors as it pushed aggressive policy changes that sparked backlash from the teachers union and many parent groups. De Blasio has found himself facing a different set of issues. Though his policies appeal to groups that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg alienated, he’s struggled to raise as much money for the Fund for Public Schools, the nonprofit Bloomberg created to attract private donors.

Chalkbeat talked to Henig, who is moderating a panel at Teachers College on education philanthropy on Wednesday, about the changing landscape of donations, how the changes played out under Bloomberg and de Blasio, and what lessons can be drawn from Newark, which received a high-profile $100 million gift to improve its schools and is still struggling to balance big changes and community concerns. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Why is education philanthropy important?

Henig: While the vast bulk of the funding for K-12 education in the U.S. still comes through the public sector and tax revenues, the public sector generally has been squeezed in recent years and resistant to tax increases. Local leaders, whether they’re progressive leaders like de Blasio or corporate, Republican-style like Bloomberg, find that philanthropic support is an important source of discretionary funds.

How do those funds differ from public funds?

They’re much more flexible. They can be targeted more quickly in the directions of support or new priorities. They’re less subject to certain rules about transparency and public control than publicly raised revenues.

What’s the “new education philanthropy”?

The foundation community is large and diverse, and many of the initiatives they’ve undertaken have been a positive way of supplementing public dollars or nurtured innovations that later other communities and public leaders embraced. I would not be among those who would argue that philanthropy in education is in itself a threat. I think it’s something to be welcomed.

What I do share is concern about what Rick Hess and I would call the new education philanthropy. In particular, the tendency of some large donors to be much more intentional in their use of money to change policy, to use philanthropy to fund research intended to support their vision, and to fund advocacy. In the backdrop of huge inequity and wealth … more and more there are a small number of private donors that may have a disproportionate impact on what government does.

How did Bloomberg use private funds?

Under Mayor Bloomberg, and particularly in the early years under Joel Klein, there were two broad ways by which philanthropy of different kinds worked with the city on schools issues.

One way is through partnerships where donors already supported initiatives that the administration thought were important, things like the Leadership Academy [the fast-track principal-training program created in 2003], things like the small schools movement. Because of the private dollars, the administration had more leeway to take a chance. Then, when some of those initiatives had either proven themselves or developed a constituency, they could then work them into the operating budget.

The other is what I might characterize as parallel play. The donor community was giving money [to causes] that the administration also supported, but not by way of the administration. That’s one of the most important stories in terms of charter schools.

How did that play out?

Particularly early in the Bloomberg administration, the charter school community was relatively small. When they weren’t politically powerful, it would have been hard for the mayor and chancellor to directly become heavily involved in a hands-on way in funding charters. The UFT and many parents see charters as competitors to the public school system, so I think they were quite happy to see private donors giving in a way that the administration could say, “That’s not us.”

How did philanthropy change under de Blasio?

The donors who were important under the Bloomberg administration were motivated by their support for some specific kinds of reform, including school choice, including small schools, including quantitative evaluation of teachers, and teacher and school accountability. Many of those donors were concerned, and in some cases, more than concerned, about the transition from Bloomberg to the de Blasio administration and much less willing to partner with an administration that they weren’t sure shared the same goals.

There are probably less overall [donations under de Blasio], especially from some of the large, high profile providers. But there are local donors who want to work with this administration. [The fund raised $18 million last fiscal year compared to an average of $29 million per year in the previous decade, according to the New York Times.] In some cases, those donors are shifting their emphasis and participating a little more. They’re shifting from a heavy emphasis on charters and accountability to initiatives the administration has identified like universal pre-K and community schools.

Increasingly, some of those donors are paying more attention to advocacy, creating at least the appearance, if not the reality, of grassroots support. That idea of working through community-based support is one that I think de Blasio, by his background, is more attuned to than Mayor Bloomberg, coming from his business background.

Bloomberg was more able to tap into the philanthropic community and wealthy donors that he and the chancellor thought were correct. De Blasio, because of his background, is more alert to, and sensitive to, nurture the grassroots support. He’s a pragmatist, which means he’s not going to turn his back on funding if he needs it, but he’s less likely to have a one-dimensional view.

What should New Yorkers learn from Newark? [In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to that city to improve its struggling school system. The next five years were documented in “The Prize” by Dale Russakoff, which Chalkbeat excerpted here.]

The lesson many draw there is that an outside donor there, with little knowledge of Newark or the priorities of the community, funneled in substantial resources. But those were regarded skeptically by locals. Much of their support went to consultants and donors who were not deeply rooted in the community. Some argue that the initiative, even some elements that might have made sense, backfired and generated political backlash that helped to elect a mayor who had a different vision of what the schools should do.

The Newark case is just a really dramatic example. The phenomenon of an aggressive pursuit of a particular vision of school reform, school choice, market competition, accountability, marketability to high-stakes testing — that agenda in a number of places was pursued so aggressively and with such urgency that it failed to build a local supportive coalition and in many circumstances produced backlash.