From the support of the “Enlightenment” to the education reform: the rise of American philanthropy in education

Par Maxim Fortin , Doctorate candidate in Political science at Laval University
28 September 2017

If there’s one sector in which philanthropy has decided to invest in, it is definitely that of education. In the United States, the situation is such that certain observers and authors are actually asking themselves if the latter didn’t outright “finance” the sector. While philanthropic actors’ interest for education is not new, the mobilization of the elites and large philanthropic foundations for the reform and scholastic success of students in elementary and high school is more so. The philanthropic tradition has gotten us used to seeing philanthropists, especially the big ones, supporting higher education, universities, academic institutions and research in different domains, not the little neighborhood schools. This mobilization began in the 1990s and was consolidated in the 2000s, notably thanks to the arrival of an influential, powerful and extremely rich actor: the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Since then, the Gates foundation and a handful of others (Annenberg Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, etc.) have become the “most important and most influential leaders and decision-makers that can exert influence on the State departments of education and on the administration of the urban school systems” (Scott, 2009:107). These facts demonstrate philanthropy’s current capacity, particularly the significant elitist philanthropy, to deploy itself into a sector in crisis, under-financed and decentralized, and to gain in terms of reform of public politics and strategic alliances with public powers. However, this brings up a whole lot of questions on the democratic character of these philanthropic initiatives destined to the most vulnerable segments of the population.

The American education system

The American education system stands out by its lack of coherence and unity. It’s a decentralized system where the financing of public schools depends on the local by 93% (Émile- Besse, 2004). The federal department of Education takes care of the remaining 7%. Each state of the Union has a department of education but, in practice, the power resides in the hands of the school districts that, themselves, are the responsibility of the School boards. The schools get their income from property tax, which means that the more they find themselves in a rich area, the more they are financed and vice versa. This situation brings about large disparities in terms of budget and of wages. The schools in rich and middle-class neighborhoods manage to support their needs while those in working-class districts or in ghettos remain in a state of chronic underfunding.

This education system also stands out because of its racial achievement gap, this being the difference between the academic success of the three main ethnic groups of the United States. As an example, in 2004, the dropout rate of Hispanic students was at 28%, those of Black students at 13%, while the rate for White students was only 7% (Émile-Besse, 2004). It is actually this issue that led to the Federal government increasingly intervening in the education sector over the past fifteen years. In 2002, George W Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act which had as a general objective to make it so that every child in the country reached a satisfying level of mathematics and of reading by 2014. However, this law will be replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gave back a part of the power to the States concerning the evaluation of students. We should also mention the Race to the Top program that was launched by President Obama in 2009 and which had as an objective to encourage innovation and reforms in the education sector. Notwithstanding these interventions from the federal level, the differences in terms of academic success are maintaining themselves and, little by little, the theme of violence and drugs in schools is replaced by that of academic failure, which is truly becoming a national issue. The climate is ideal for forces who wish to bring about a reform.

The education system reform: charter schools, advocacy and public politics

As of the 2000s, a group of foundations associated to elitist philanthropy launched themselves into a vast project of reform in American education. Won over by the cause of freedom of choice with regards to education (School choice) and open to certain forms of privatization of public schools, these foundations started converting public schools into charter schools, the cornerstone of their strategy. Charter schools are public elementary and high schools whose management is entrusted to the private sector. They benefit from a larger autonomy regarding the education methods, the academic programs, the working conditions of the staff, etc. They can be for or non-profit. First appearing in the 1970s, the charter school movement went through some significant developments in the 1990s. With the increasingly active and massive support of big philanthropy, their means and influence had considerably increased during the next decade. It seems that the movement now benefits from a two-party support, as demonstrates the favorable politics for charter schools of the Obama administration, as well Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy Devos, figurehead of the charter school movement, as secretary of Education.

We can already identify four cases where American big philanthropy has played a major role in the expansion of this type of school: New York, Los Angeles, the State of Washington and New Orleans. In New York, the Broad, Fisher, Gates and Walton family foundations energetically support the development of charter schools and managed to get the support of public powers who, in turn, have increased the ceiling of charter schools to 200 in 2007 (Scott, 2009: 126). In Los Angeles, the same group of foundations, except for the Walton Foundation, accompanied by the New School Venture Fund, financed the management organizations that administer the charter schools in a majority of cases (Scott, 2009: 125). In the State of Washington, when the 1240 initiative concerning the creation of charter schools was submitted for voting, the “yes” side received 11.4 million dollars in contributions. The donations of three big donors, Bill Gates, Alice Walton and Paul Allen, represented  2/3 of this sum while other philanthropists like Eli Broad, Mike and Jackie Bezos ( and Reed Hastings (Netflix) contributed 100 000 dollars each (Mitchell and Lizotte, 2014: 82). Large amounts and significant support in a tight campaign that was won over by the supporters of charter schools with only 50.69% of popular votes…

The case of New Orleans deserves even more attention. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city became the stage of a massive education reform led jointly by the political elites and philanthropic actors. Among the foundations involved in this reform, we once again find the Broad, Gates, Fisher and Walton foundations who, together, have invested a total of 17.5 million dollars in this venture (Saltman in Huff, 2013: 313). As in New York, the public powers endorsed the idea of a change of course regarding the management of the schools, so much so that 114 out of the 121 public schools of New Orleans were declared failing schools and were taken over by the State of Louisiana (Huff, 2013:312). This action was followed by the decision of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), a public organization as well, to fire 7500 teachers and employees, a decision that had as effect to immediately crush one of the main local opposition to the creation of charter schools[i], the United Teachers of New Orleans Union (Huff, 2013:313). From then on, the movement of charter schools had a clear path forward.  Several years later, in 2013, 78% of the 42 000 students in New Orleans’ public schools go to charter schools, the biggest percentage in the country […] The expansion of the conversion to charter schools brought about a system of public schools that is not really a system and that is not really public in the sense where the vast majority of students in the public schools of New Orleans go to schools run by bodies consisting of non-elected persons highly influenced by a small number of non-profit organizations and of philanthropists associated to corporate philanthropy (Huff, 2013:313).

As these four cases demonstrate, the development of charter schools finds itself in political dynamics, in the arena of the political game and in that of public politics. Attempting to understand how elitist philanthropy managed to exert as much influence on the education system implies paying attention to the place now taken by advocacy activities within philanthropy, especially in education. In fact, the support of advocacy activities demonstrates foundations’ growing will of influence, but also, a certain politicization of the latter. An analysis of the data of 2000, 2005 and 2010 concerning philanthropic donations for education has actually allowed for Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey W. Snyder to come to the following conclusion:

Philanthropy is generally seen as a charitable activity and philanthropists have traditionally approached with hesitation or have abstained from political advocacy. However, the large, active foundations in education are now more and more politically engaged. Their action supports groups involved in political advocacy and those who provide funds that promote competition with institutions of the public sector and that allow for the use of converging funds to help advance certain priorities. A philanthropy that is coordinated, centered on public politics and oriented towards advocacy constitutes an important access to political influence for foundations (Reckhow and Snyder, 2014:193).

Janelle Scott, who has been studying the public politics surrounding education for several years, considers that elitist academic philanthropy works de facto as an “advocacy coalition” (Scott, 2009:107) in the political arena and like a “policy-planning network” in public politics (Scott, 2015:131). Through advocacy, they manage to put the themes of School choice and charter schools on the agenda all the while exerting pressure on the decision-makers through different groups of citizens and parents that they finance (Mitchelle and Lizote, 2014). Through the constitution of a policy-planning network, they manage to organize and coordinate school reform efforts by developing a governance of “public-private” education as well as expert-knowledge on the education needed to take control of schools in difficulty, notably in poor neighborhoods where there is a high concentration of people of color. However, this capacity of influence on the education system and its actors does not seem sufficient to attain the reform’s objectives that are pursued by philanthropists or to have a significant impact on academic success. At the end of the 2010s, Bill Gates and his foundation realized that their initial strategy wasn’t bringing about enough progress and turned towards the promotion of national standards with the Common Core project. In 2016, the Gates Foundation had to admit that the adoption of national standards by the States was harder than predicted and that they had under-estimated the level of resources and of support needed for such an endeavor (Layton, 2014; Strauss, 2016). Another great philanthropist in Bill Gates silo, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, must also revisit his plans after his reform project for the schools of Newark (New Jersey), supported by a 100 million dollar donation, provoked the mobilization of a part of the community and contributed to the election of  mayor opposed to charter schools (Russakoff, 2014).

The passion of philanthropists and foundations for education, and more specifically for education reform, is one of the marking traits of contemporary philanthropy. Moreover, the developments of philanthropy in education bring up a certain number of issues and open up interesting research leads. Janelle Scott proposes four of them: 1- the study of the relationships and interactions between local actors (teachers, parents, school directors, etc.) and philanthropic actors; 2- the study of the impact of philanthropic support on education politics, particularly those related to urban communities; 3- the study of the specific influence of elitist philanthropy on philanthropy as a whole; 4- the study of the distribution of and exchange of ideas between organizations from the education sector who interact with philanthropic actors (Scott, 2019: 131). Other than these theoretical issues, the weight and role of philanthropy in education also brings up several issues in terms of democracy and social justice. In its current form, the social investments of elitist philanthropy seem to accelerate the privatization of schools, contribute to the eviction of teacher unions, accentuate the control of the for-profit private sector and of philanthropic actors on the training of the masters and of the management of schools, consolidate the powers of the elites in the public politics domain and participate in a form of racial segregation (Renzulli et Roscigno, 2007) to the extent that they are attended by a staggering majority of black or Hispanic students. In fact, these trends could as much represent interesting and pertinent research leads.


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  • STRAUSS, Valerie, 2016, « Gates Foundation chief admits Common Core mistakes », The Washington Post, 2 juin,, page consultée le 17 septembre 2017.
Notes de bas de page

[i]Let us mention here that contrary to public schools, charter schools are only slightly unionized and their directors sometimes display an open hostility towards teacher unions. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone of New York can be cited as an example.