Voices in Education

Private Charity, Government Spending, and Education Accountability: Myths and Realities
Two recent news items provide reminders about the importance of transparency in education funding and accountability in the private and public sectors. In the first we learned of a billionaire's continued charitable giving, and in the other about public funds for school voucher programs. The stories are related, albeit indirectly.
As reported by nearly all the major news media, Warren Buffett has transferred another $2.4 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bringing the total of his remarkable bequest, since 2006, to about $22 billion.[1] Buffett has given close to $28 billion—to Gates plus a number of other charities—during that time period. He is ranked among the four or five richest people in the world, and along with Gates established the Giving Pledge in 2010 as a way to encourage billionaires in the United States and abroad to donate substantial portions of their accumulated wealth to the public good.[2]
And as described in a recent Washington Post story, information about government-provided vouchers for private education is difficult to find and, in some cases, intentionally hidden. Reporters Mandy McLaren and Emma Brown write (July 15) that “Congress dedicates $15 million a year to a program that helps low-income D.C. students pay tuition at private schools, but it’s impossible for taxpayers to find out where their money goes: The administrator of the D.C. voucher program refuses to say how many students attend each school or how many public dollars they receive.” The pattern appears to be more widespread: “Of the ten largest private-school choice programs in the nation, at least three do not publish information about how many students are served at each school or how much money those schools receive….” [3]
Here is how these stories connect: Anxiety about large transfers of concentrated private wealth taking place with little public accountability has been an issue in American policy for close to a century. The “charitable deduction” clause in our tax code, which was legislated in 1917, enables donors to hold on to much of their wealth if they donate a minimum amount (roughly 5 percent) to legitimate nonprofit organizations and causes. However, relatively little accounting is required to show exactly how the funds are disbursed, which has been alarming to people regardless of their political orientation. Richard Nixon, in the early 1970s, fumed about the Ford Foundation’s involvement in the civil rights movement, while today the role of the Gates Foundation (and others) in certain school reform initiatives has become the target of strident opposition from the left.[4] Although there is a continuing need for attention to the loose accountability rules for charitable giving and the shifts in foundation funding for education,[5] the largest foundations have made progress in reporting where their money is going and why.[6]
On the other hand, and why the Washington Post story is relevant, the assumption that government spending is subject to stricter rules regarding the “public’s right to know” is increasingly dubious. Clearly, the voucher experiment started long before the current administration, and reporting rules have not changed overnight. But President Trump’s and Secretary DeVos’s unabashed preference for privatization, and their attitudes toward the kind of information parents need or want, should sound alarm bells.[7] One wonders how the most ardent critics of foundation-sponsored education reforms feel about turning more education decision making over to unfettered governmental authority, given current realities in Washington. Some would argue forcefully that breaches of norms of accountability for government spending are more egregious, especially given the magnitudes of money involved, than for private philanthropic giving.
In any case, in the light of current attacks on factual evidence generally, there is ever more need for attention to the importance of accountability and the free flow of reliable information, linchpins of American democracy.[8] The fact that neither the private nor the public sector can be assumed to ensure transparency of relevant data means we should avoid simplistic allegations about misdeeds in either camp. It is a murkier situation, one that warrants creative and nuanced policy attention.

[1] Jonathan Stempel, “Buffett donates $3.17 billion to Gates charity, four others,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-buffett-charities-idUSKBN19V2QY
[3] Mandy McLaren and Emma Brown, “Trump wants to spend millions more on school vouchers. But what’s happened to the millions already spent?,” Washington Post, July 15, 2017, http://wapo.st/2tVspNN?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.e7da662e257e
[4] Diane Ravitch, “Big Foundations Paved the Way for Trump’s Assault on Public Schools,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 3, 2016, https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Opinion-Blame-Big-Foundations/238662
[5] See, e.g., Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, Oxford University Press, 2012.
[7] See, e.g., Jonathan Pelto, “Beware of Trump and DeVos’ grand plan to privatize public education,” The Hill, February 10, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/education/318948-beware-of-trump-and-devos-grand-plan-to-privatize-public
[8] A familiar rendering of the assault on facts is from the post-inauguration inflation of the number of people on the national mall: see, e.g., Eric Bradner, “Conway: Trump White House offered 'alternative facts' on crowd size,” http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/22/politics/kellyanne-conway-alternative-facts/index.html

About the Author: Michael Feuer is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and professor of education policy at the George Washington University, and president of the National Academy of Education. His most recent book is The Rising Price of Objectivity: Philanthropy, Government, and the Future of Education Research (Harvard Education Press, 2016).