Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Urban Renewal Philanthropy


Sure I'd love to see the internal evaluations foundations do on their programs (and would love for more humility and better policy choices from education philanthropies in general) but I don't really believe that that there's more transparency and accountability and opportunity for public input (aka democracy) in school districts and government agencies than among funders and the nonprofits who receive grants from them. Nor do I really believe that the richest people in America have free rein to impose any extreme or cockamamie idea they feel like on American schoolchildren. They choose from among ideas that education experts (including academics and practitioners) present to them, from the political mainstream, and have to maintain credibility with districts and elected officials in order to maintain access to public systems -- even as distressed and desperate as many are.

What's changed even in the past couple years here in Providence is not simply that there is philanthropic influence on education policy -- in fact philanthropically funded projects attracted me here (and I work for a philanthropist, but not on a local project). The character of the influence has radically changed.

Lobbying, marketing, directly training and funding the placement of ideologically sympathetic administrators have blurred the line between philanthropy and public administration.

But perhaps most importantly, an "urban renewal" mindset has become acceptable. It is no longer necessary to try to strengthen existing schools, just let them rot and close them. It is possible to create schools that substantially improve the lot of low-income and otherwise marginalized youth, but it is very difficult, and it requires everyone pulling in the same direction. If philanthropy is promoting ambivalence within government and district administration, it is simply impossible. Yet in the medium term, philanthropy is not discredited, because their prophecies are being fulfilled. How many years will it take to "prove" the cost of their cure?

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