Foundations fear real questions


Foundations fear real questions

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen, Feb. 13-19, 2011

One  insidious way in which foundations are distorting democracy is by  producing  a pseudo-intellectual climate designed to support their views of development. They hold conferences, commission expert opinions and direct data production to give the impression that their decisions about our city and our schools are nothing more than the logical extension of neutral data and expert analysis.  They claim no self-interest, only hard logic.

 The data speaks for itself,  they claim.

 This claim does not hold up to scrutiny. The truth is that foundations are only interested in some data and some experts. They reject data that contradicts what they believe and they do not ask the kinds of questions that will produce different data.

The clearest example of this selective allegiance to data is the combined assault on public education by the Gates-Broad-Walton Foundations.  These three foundations have pushed neo-liberal, market-based ideas into education. They have been behind the ideas of charter schools, testing,  and the dismantling of teachers unions. For more than a decade they have forced one idea after another on students in mostly poor, urban areas.

 Almost all the evidence demonstrates that none of their efforts have succeeded. Instead they have disrupted schools and destabilized education.

 The 2009 Stanford University study of Charter Schools concluded that 83% of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools. In 2010 Vanderbilt University researchers showed that merit pay for teachers did not produce higher test scores. The National Research Council has repeatedly argued that test scores are not an adequate measure of student learning. 

 Chicago and New York, the showcase cities for change, have demonstrated only that tests can be manipulated to make politicians look successful.

 Gates’ decade-long effort to create small school initiatives was abandoned with barely a glance at why this effort had failed.  Researchers charged that the policies used for small schools ignored the data that said class size, not school size, made a difference.

 Even the claim that U.S.  public schools are failing is based on selective data analysis. Writing  recently about international comparative testing,   Joanne Barkan concluded:

 “The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty.”

 None of these foundations has asked the question how their push toward privatization has actualy increased poverty and destabalized communities. Nor have they asked how  the corporations producing the tax-free dollars that enable their foundations to meddle in public life secured their wealth at the expense of communities.

 All the evidence says that the shrinking of the public sector, let alone the city, has been a major blow to the economic stability of African American families.

 Data is never neutral. It cannot provide dispassionate answers to the real questions of public life.  Democracy demands  that we engage with one another in discussion and debate over real questions about what kind of community we want to create, what policies lead us toward our vision. This means honestly asking who benefits? who is hurt? What kind of community will a policy create?

These are not questions answered neutrally. They reflect the heart, will and aspirations of our communities. They are the questions foundations are afraid to ask.


  1. rich feldman

    a friend at work said that your article needs to be reprinted in every union paper in the country because it so clearly summarizes the issues.

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