​In his new book, "The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy," Ken Saltman (professor, College of Education) examines troubling trends in educational philanthropy.  The book won a 2011 American Educational Studies Critics Choice Award which, according to the AESA, “serves to recognize and increase awareness of recent scholarship deemed to be outstanding in its field and of potential interest to members of the Association.” 


"In the United States, educational philanthropy — private foundations giving money to school districts or states — has moved away from the idea of education as an activity with 'public purpose' and toward the idea of public schooling as a private industry. Giving now rests on two assumptions that should be challenged: 1) competition is good, as it drives quality up and costs down, and 2) the public sector is bureaucratic and inefficient; the private sector is efficient and effective.

"While the three biggest venture philanthropists — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation — are not looking for profit for themselves per se, their forms of giving mimic a venture capitalist model and facilitate 'for profit' entry into public schooling. Using the language of commerce, reformers imagine public schools as businesses, districts as markets, students as consumers, and knowledge as product. To 'fix' schools, they advocate privatization and deregulation. In effect, they say to cities and school districts, 'do this, and you’ll get money'.  Using public tax benefits, these private foundations are directing educational policy and promoting private sector schemes, such as chartering, turnarounds, and vouchers.
"The results — increasingly apparent, everywhere — are daunting for public education:

  • For-profit management organizations run schools. In Michigan, 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit management companies.
  • Charters subcontract to these organizations.  In Illinois, charter schools are nonprofit, but private. That has several ramifications (none, in my opinion, in the best interests of the school system or the public): 1) When a neighborhood school is closed (under Renaissance 2010), its union is dissolved, resulting in higher teacher turnover and less experienced teachers. Only a few Chicago charters have been able to form a union, and these teachers are prohibited from joining the Chicago Teachers Union. 2) By claiming private status, charters do not have to reveal to the public select financial data on money coming in and money being spent. 3) The closing of neighborhood schools in Chicago has meant the dismantling of democratically elected local school councils.
  • Tax-funded vouchers encourage parents to abandon public schools.

"And have our schools improved? No. The chartering process, initially intended to open independent, alternative schools, has instead created homogeneous ones that can be replicated and scaled up. These schools use rigid pedagogical approaches to 'teach the test' thereby emphasizing pedagogies of control rather than fostering dialogue, creativity, and curiosity. Educational policy researchers have found that the 'reformed' schools are on par or worse than traditional public schools with regard to test score performance.

"At the same time, as administrators’ pay goes up in charter schools, teachers’ pay goes down (as do job security and levels of experience).  The massive expansion of charter schools with short-term contracts is an intermediary step toward the declaration of their failure and their replacement by private contracting, especially by for-profit Educational Management Organizations which make a profit by cutting teacher pay and resources even more and by promoting high turnover.

"Chicago is a microcosm of the whole problem. Here, the Renaissance 2010 Plan — created by the Commercial Club of Chicago with funding of $100 million — has privatized and de-unionized about 100 of the 600 city schools. The business metaphor behind the plan is an 'urban portfolio': superintendents are fund managers, and schools are stocks in their portfolios. The processes of closing schools and churning contracts — called “creative destruction” — rewards instability. Not surprisingly, teachers are paid less and have less control; university-centered teacher education is being replaced by alternative training and certification (increasingly offered by for-profit companies or venture philanthropies that share the same perspective). In five years, the reform has not raised test scores or lowered costs.

"The reason that private industry education is failing — and will continue to fail — is that it’s being applied to the urban poor (the well-funded public schools in the suburbs are just fine), but it does not address underlying problems: racial segregation, a lack of investment in the communities, high unemployment and poverty, illicit economies and the decline of an industrial base.  The business emphasis on standardization, heavy testing, and scripted lessons denies students critical forms of education that would help them comprehend and act on the broader causes of these social conditions.

"All this begs the question, 'What is schooling for?' With a 'public good' perspective, the answer would be 'preparing citizens to participate in a democracy'; with a business perspective, it’s 'training students to contribute to a corporate-dominated economy'.  The public needs to retain control over educational spending (especially since foundations get a 40 percent tax break on their gifts); a wall should separate the giving of the money and the using of the money. U.S. citizens are losing control over our public schools, and we need to take that control back."