One of you, please get out of the bed

In the world of education policy and education reform, recent months have seen the relationship between government and private philanthropy grow entirely too intimate. Many of our major foundations, including some for which I generally have high regard (and occasional gratitude for their help with Fordham's work), have, with the best of intentions, acted as if their foremost mission were to instruct federal and state officials on what to do, tug the strings of public policy in directions that they favor, and spend their own money in ways that compliment (or foreshadow) outlays of government funds. What's more, the flow of active human traffic between foundation and government offices--in both directions--suggests not only that there's much overlap between private and public agendas but also that some of the same folks are working both sides of that street in alternate months.

Much of this has centered on Secretary Duncan's billions of "race to the top" dollars and his earnest effort to deploy those moneys to stimulate worthwhile reforms, not just to backfill recession-drilled holes in state and local education budgets.

Because the changes Duncan favors--national standards, better data, performance-linked evaluations of teachers, alternative certification, charter schools, etc.--more or less align with the priorities of many nongovernment analysts and donors (myself included, I readily admit), it's no surprise that those outside government have been tempted to lend a hand to make it all happen. Duncan & Co. have understandably encouraged and welcomed such help. There have, as a result, been innumerable powwows, projects, technical assistance grants, and jawboning, underwritten and abetted by such major reform-minded donors as...well, I was going to name names, but you almost certainly know who they are.

And why ever not? After all, Uncle Sam has so much more money than even these deep-pocketed philanthropies. The careful targeting of those public funds could do so much good, catalyzing or accelerating greater and perhaps more durable activity at state/local levels than the private sector alone could hope to effect. Indeed it's tempting, nigh irresistible.

Perhaps in retrospect we'll conclude that the intimacy even did some good and produced some healthy progeny. But there's a problem here, too: the possibility of a Faustian bargain that, in the throes of short-term passion, fails to note the long-term risk.

From where I sit, the great advantage of and principal rationale for a healthy philanthropic sector in a country like the U.S. is its independence from government, its unique capacity to do what government can't or won't. That's a far different thing from serving as guide-dog, tugboat, or aide-de-camp to government itself. And that's the distinction we risk losing as foundations rush to help do government's work.

What private dollars can do uniquely and best is stand apart from government: Fund activities that are politically or constitutionally beyond government's reach; underwrite critics, evaluators, and analysts of public policies and programs; pay for inquiry, research, and advocacy that would be inappropriate for the public sector to undertake; and generally distinguish its work from that of government in a truly "independent sector." In a Wall Street Journal interview the other day, Eli Broad made clear that his foundation, for one, believes in "venture philanthropy" to jump-start worthy change, not in waiting for the government to sign on.

He's right, and recent history contains abundant examples of that distinctive private-sector role and the good that it can do in the education sphere.

Would Teach For America have gotten traction if it had relied from the beginning on public dollars? Would KIPP? Core Knowledge? Would the National Council on Teacher Quality have been able to put teacher contracts online? Would the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools exist? What about Education Next? The New Teacher Project? New Leaders for New Schools? Would we at Fordham, with our colleagues at Northwest Evaluation Association, have been able to examine and reveal the unevenness of school "proficiency" ratings under NCLB--or the effects of NCLB on high-achieving youngsters? Would Rick Hess have been able to probe the potential and limits of "entrepreneurship" in K-12 education? Would Joel Klein have been able to launch a fleet of charter schools in Gotham? Would Michelle Rhee be able to bargain seriously with the Washington Teachers Union over the evaluation, retention, and compensation of educators in the nation's capital?

Such lists could go on and on. It's not that the private funding that made these things possible was antithetical to sound public policy. It's that the private dollars enabled things to be done around, outside, and often in tension with government and politics; things that, over the long haul, tend to make for better education and sounder public policy. Due to politics, procurement rules, equity considerations, uniformity concerns, and plain old red tape and inertia, government could not pay for these things itself. And the private sector could pay for them only because it didn't much care what government thought. It had truly independent ideas of what would be good for education--and, as these examples suggest, more than a few of those ideas turned out to be sound. Some, indeed, led in time to government doing things it might not otherwise have done. Or stopped it from doing things it would have done.

This healthy tension only works, however, when the private sector remains truly autonomous, even aloof. When it can thumb its nose at government, politicians, and public officials and say "we're doing this, like it or not, because we believe it's good for American education and we don't have to pay attention to the many constraints that you in government must labor under."

That's really tough for philanthropists to do while also sharing a bed with government. It's not totally impossible but it's mighty hard, if only because elected and appointed officials at whatever level are apt to say "we can't work with the XYZ foundation because it's got a history of criticizing us, paying for studies that embarrass us, and funding people to give us grief." Stalwart philanthropists ought not be intimidated. But many are. Because it's always nicer to be thanked and taken seriously, and because it is so tempting to think that one's relatively meager private dollars are being multiplied by the government's zillions--and never more than today when private resources are down and public spending seems boundless--there's a strong temptation to bite one's own tongue and hug government tighter.

Perhaps no harm will come from this romance. Conceivably some good will follow. But the precedent is worrisome. On balance, I'm pretty sure, American education would be better served if the two sectors waved cheerily at one another but then slept in their own beds.

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