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All Foundations Have Agendas: Response to Diane Ravitch

“Privatization of public education is a terrible idea.”

Those were some of the final words in Diane Ravitch’s recent attack on non-profit foundations that support education reform, and it got our attention. The piece that she wrote was part of the Boston Review’s forum on “What Are Foundations For?”  The forum is intended to redefine how America looks at its largest giving entities, and Ms. Ravitch probably left more than a few readers thinking that today’s largest foundations are somehow more devious and more self-serving than the noble foundations that came before them. We want to set the record straight.

Ms. Ravitch says that she supported the goal of ed reform foundations 20 years ago. That’s when Ravitch was in Washington, and allegedly supporting school choice, testing, and the charter movement. She first served under President Bush from 1991-93, where she was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. After the White House changed owners, President Clinton brought her in as an Assistant Secretary of Education in 1997, where she was in charge of the National Assessment Governing Board, the governing body of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This sounds odd considering her strong opposition to testing now, but for Diane Ravitch, a lot of things have changed since then. It’s weird to say so, but Diane Ravitch used to be one of us.

That 20 year number she quoted is important to her. She also cited it in a 2010 interview when she was discussing what it was like to admit that she was “wrong about ed reform” all those years ago. When Ravitch was asked whose confession of wrongness she’d like to hear most, she replied “basically everyone I’ve been associated with for the past 20 years.” A year later, in a 2011 opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Ravitch told readers that the “Texas Miracle” in Dallas 20 years ago was a myth, and testing, teacher merit pay, and NCLB were all failures.

20 years ago, Ravitch was in office. 20 years ago she had a front row seat. What happened? Does guilt over that “failure” drive her vitriol toward school choice? Did she feel that the charter movement was hijacked by corporate insurgents? What happened to her in the early 1990s that made her so bitter toward the school choice movement that she once supported so passionately? For that matter, if she was burned 20 years ago, why did she come back under Clinton to manage the testing apparatus 16 years ago?

Ravitch has admitted to disillusionment, but her attacks on school choice are growing more hostile, almost as if her hostility is directly correlated to the rise in school choice popularity. Readers claim that her work speaks to them, but all we hear is cynicism and this latest Boston Review piece just doesn’t make any sense at all. Here’s why…

She states that the traditional giving foundations of Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, plutocratic philanthropists all in their own right, gave way to a new breed of foundation a decade ago, led by the foundations of Gates, Broad, and Walton. She calls this new breed of foundation “venture philanthropy,” stating that “All of them fund similar projects. There is no diversity, merely a consensus position. They don’t respond to someone’s good idea. They have their own ideas, and they either find someone to implement them or they create organizations that will.”

This, of course, implies that something has changed in the nature of consensus among large foundations, and that the Foundations of Old were somehow standards of morality that were committed to purely democratic and broadly accepted mission statements. Is this true? Were those foundations really so trustworthy? Are today’s foundations selfishly fueling hidden agendas? What separates Ravitch’s foundations of the early 1990s from those that are fueling the school choice revolution today?

As it turns out, the Foundations of Old also threw their combined support behind movements, and their missions were hardly “democratic.”

The three foundations for which she demonstrates nostalgia spent the better part of a century (mainly the post-War period) crafting American foreign policy to fit the needs of a growing superpower, solidifying federal supremacy over the art of statecraft in order to secure a foreign appetite for American business. They did this by fine-tuning the education of students at America’s best universities (Columbia, Chicago, MIT, Berkeley) and then supported those universities’ efforts abroad in strategically located Third World countries. This era witnessed the expansion of the social sciences, international relations, and the birth of “area studies,” so when you hear someone tell you that they’re a “Balkhanist” or a “Sub-Saharanist” you’ll know when, where, and why their fields began.

Some historians have claimed that the policies pursued by these organizations were detrimental to the United States. Some conspiracy theorists would tell you that the old guard foundations epitomize the New World Order, intent on controlling the educational system of the United States so as to engineer its citizens into a one-world government. For the purposes of this discussion, these debates are neither here nor there (the second debate is there – waaaaay out there). What we want to point out is that those organizations so cherished by Ms. Ravitch as supporting a “democratic” agenda were, in fact, pressing their own all along.

In light of such powerful collusion among Ravitch’s preferred foundations, it amazed us to hear her say something like this: “I agree with [Rob] Reich that foundations should be free to do what they wish. What is frightening, however, is seeing so many foundations lined up behind the same agenda…”

Wait, what? Ravitch worked in government, she must have seen the weight that that the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations had in politics. And now that they have been displaced by the likes of the Gates Foundation, she is ready to throw up her arms in disgust, calling the collaborative education reform movement “venture philanthropy?”

Should we criticize the foundations of David and Lucile Packard (16th wealthiest), Gordon and Betty Moore (19th wealthiest), and Andrew W. Mellon (20th wealthiest) for their science and technology agendas? Should we be skeptical of the support for the arts by the foundations of William and Flora Hewlett (12th wealthiest), J. Paul Getty (7th wealthiest), and Sebastian Kresge (29th wealthiest)? Do the foundations of W.K. Kellogg (11th wealthiest), Howard Hughes Medical Institute (4th wealthiest), and Robert Woods Johnson (8th wealthiest) get subpoenaed for their commitment to healthcare?

Any of these trios of philanthropic agencies could be seen as having an “agenda,” but who are we to tell those organizations how to spend their money? On that note, who is Ravitch to say what ed reform should look like when she ditched the revolution two decades ago?

There’s a reason why the private sector and the public sector are cooperating on ed reform right now. There’s a reason why both Presidential candidates supported school choice in this last election. There’s a reason why outmoded teachers unions are losing ground all across these United States. Opponents to school choice are part of a diminishing resistance. We respect people like Diane Ravitch for their commitment to a cause, but school choice is not the same thing it was when she left the movement and public coffers are not as deep. The public education system will change, but it will not be from within. That time has passed, and so has hers.


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