In my last post I described a method for understanding what ed reform foundations are really pursuing by examining the content of Tweets issued by their grantees. When some assistants and I conducted this analysis we found that ed reform foundation grantees devote significantly more energy to promoting diversity than promoting school choice. In the prior post I wondered whether this strategy of emphasizing diversity relative to choice is wise given Republican dominance of state governments, where most education policy is formulated and implemented.
The grantees of major ed reform foundations not only give a lower priority to advocating for school choice — both charters and private school choice — but they also seem to prefer top-down accountability approaches over parental empowerment. It was too difficult for non-expert research assistants to judge whether Tweets championed accountability to regulators as opposed to accountability to parents, but they could reliably count the number of Tweets that mentioned the words accountability, quality, and equity. When Tweets are advocating top-down accountability they tend to use these words since they typically do not envision having to answer to parents as accountability and because they often argue that quality and equity are the goals of their top-down regulatory efforts. Of course, some Tweets that use these words are not advocating top-down accountability, but it is also the case that one does not need to specifically mention the words accountability, quality, or equity to be arguing for top-down accountability. While obviously imprecise, I think the number of Tweets talking about accountability, quality, or equity is a reasonable proxy for support of top-down accountability approaches.
If we compare the number of Tweets using any of these three words to the number of Tweets advocating school choice, we find far greater emphasis on top-down accountability than choice. Among grantees of the Gates Foundation, Tweets mentioned accountability, quality, or equity 6.7 times as often as they advocated school choice. Among Broad Foundation grantees the ratio was 3.1. Arnold Foundation grantees mentioned accountability, quality, or equity 1.9 times as often as they advocated choice. And at the Walton Foundation the figure was 1.0, representing a relatively even emphasis on top-down accountability and choice.
Another indication of how much foundation grantees favored top-down accountability relative to parental empowerment could be found in how they reacted to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education. Keep in mind that the time-period we examined was October 1 to December 15 of 2016, so DeVos had just been nominated toward the end of that period. In addition, she had not yet testified, so support or opposition of her nomination was a reaction to her perceived position on issues rather than her command (or lack thereof) of the details of education policy. Much more opposition to DeVos was mobilized and expressed after her confirmation hearings, which was after the time period we examined. Lastly, it is important to consider that DeVos is a relatively centrist Republican reformer. Her supporters included moderate advocates of top-down accountability, while opposition to her was marked by hostility to parental empowerment or support for choice only if it was accompanied by fairly strong top-down accountability measures.
When my assistants coded Tweets as supporting or opposing DeVos they found that grantees of the Broad Foundation opposed her 2 to 1, although this was based on a small number of Tweets. Given that Eli Broad ultimately wrote a public letter opposing DeVos, this result is not surprising but does provide some validation for the method of analyzing Tweets as a window into foundation strategy. Gates Foundation grantees had slightly more Tweets against DeVos than favoring her. But among the Arnold and Walton foundation grantees, support for DeVos was much stronger, with Tweets 2.9 and 5.9 times more likely to support than oppose her, respectively.
Foundations can, of course, support whatever causes they prefer. The major education reform foundations do not have to be enamored with school choice, can devote the bulk of their energy to promoting diversity, and can take whatever positions they like with respect to top-down accountability and Betsy DeVos. My point in reporting these results is simply that the causes being championed by the grantees of these major education reform foundations may differ significantly in some ways from what many people think ed reform foundations support. These causes being championed may even differ significantly from what the foundation staffs or boards think they are supporting. The evidence suggests that major ed reform foundation grantees give far higher priority to advocating for diversity than for school choice, seem to favor top-down accountability more than parental empowerment, and sometimes only offer tepid support or even opposition to moderate Republican reformers.