Still troubling bed partners

Not long ago, I laid hold of this space to voice my concern that private foundations are getting entirely too palsy-walsy with Uncle Sam—and that he’s doing his ardent utmost to draw them into an intimate embrace.

Turns out I failed to appreciate the depth of this mutual attraction—though it’s hard to be sure how much of it is true love and how much a matter of mutual “leverage.” Either way, recent days have brought both fresh evidence of foundations banding together in part to do the government’s bidding in K-12 education reform and a troubling report from the recent Council on Foundation conclave in Denver.

The hard news is that a dozen major foundations have committed some $506 million this year to a joint venture intended to foster educational innovation, of which about one-fourth will be spent to “match” federal funding from the i3 “innovation” program. That venture, the government part of which is paid from economic-stimulus money, is meant to gin up fresh ideas to improve K-12 education and bankroll the replication of successful “innovations” already underway. Grantees must come up with a 20 percent match from private sources and America’s education-reform-minded foundations have been besieged by would-be claimants on the Education Department’s unusual largesse—hardly surprising, considering that applications are due next week!

To simplify such match-making, the multi-foundation initiative includes a novel—one might fairly say innovative—“online registry,” a sort of shared website where (in the words of Education Week reporter Michele McNeil) “applicants can upload their own grant proposal information and foundations can go shopping for reform ideas and partners that they want to fund.”

There is obvious appeal in one-stop shopping from the standpoint of would-be innovators, particularly small and inexperienced grant-seekers. But there is also a risk that group-think will substitute for the judgment of individual foundations (as in “well, three other foundations have already rejected this project so we need not waste time evaluating it ourselves”). Priorities may gradually merge and “innovations” could turn out to be bland, innocuous, and free from sharp edges. Which eventually weakens one of the great strengths of private philanthropy, namely that Gates isn’t Walton isn’t Casey isn’t Hewlett isn’t Ford isn’t Carnegie, etc., and their differing interests and values are pillars of true diversity and innovativeness in education (and other fields).

Of equal concern is whether a dozen of America’s most important education-minded foundations should tie up 130 million of their dollars in projects and programs chosen by government selectors, in effect subsidizing a government program with money that might otherwise support ventures that government cannot or would not touch. If the government wants more dollars than Congress appropriated, maybe it should go back for a supplemental—or change its spending priorities or raise taxes or borrow some more.

Though a great many details remain hazy to outside observers, it does seem that most of the other $376 million is intended by the foundations to underwrite education innovations that Arne Duncan does not fund. Yet if they are spotted via the new registry, they are almost sure to be the sort of project that conforms to i3 priorities, such as school turnarounds. Not necessarily a bad thing, but very possibly a corral outside which there are more daring innovations that could never qualify for government funding.

Yet the foundations may not care, for many of them seem more and more willing to let the Obama administration set their priorities, not least because they yearn—philosophically, culturally, perhaps politically, too—to help this administration succeed. The administration reciprocates, of course, as it is exceptionally keen to enlist these selfsame foundations in advancing its policies, programs, and reputation. There’s an affinity here that transcends anything I’ve observed in earlier years—and of course it is heightened by the number of people with foundation (and, generally, nonprofit) backgrounds who occupy key policy roles in the Education Department and other agencies.

Consider this report from the recent Council on Foundations soiree by the Manhattan Institute’s Anthony Paletta:

This year’s...conference...offered a revealing glimpse into the nexus of an administration eager to obtain the support of the non-profit world, and a community of increasingly politicized foundations who see bountiful opportunities for legislative achievements emanating from the current White House.

A tone of mutual congratulation pervaded the conference, first exemplified by remarks from Valerie Jarrett...manager of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which oversees public-private liaison efforts...

If you thought that philanthropy’s mission was simply to donate to areas in need, then you haven’t been paying attention....Concurrent with exhortations to spend philanthropic wealth in the most politically minded ways possible, the conference featured numerous speakers deeply concerned about the malignant influence of other people’s money on politics...

[E]xecutives from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, both single-donor billion-dollar funds that direct vast amounts of resources to political causes, argued for greater levels of political engagement in philanthropy.

Complicating this subject is the fact that philanthropists say (and surely believe) that what they’re doing is “leveraging” their own money with government dollars, policy clout, and regulatory oomph. They see this as an enormous bargain, a way to produce more action than their own budgets could pay for. They are thrilled by what they view as “policy alignment” between their goals and the administration’s. What they may not appreciate is that in this process—and in the name of “public-private partnerships,” a term I have come to mistrust—they are, in effect, subsidizing government and lengthening its reach beyond even the President’s and Secretary Duncan’s considerable intentions.

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