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Sponsors of Policy: A Network Analysis of Wealthy Elites, their Affiliated Philanthropies, and Charter School Reform in Washington State


by Wayne Au & Joseph J. Ferrare - 2014

Background/Context: Charter school policy has evolved into a major component of the current education reform movement in the United States. As of 2012, all but nine U.S. states allowed charter schools, and in one of those nine, Washington State, charter school legislation was passed by popular vote in November 2012. There is a substantial, if contested, research base focusing on charter school effectiveness, particularly related to test score achievement, as well as an equally contested literature base on charter school enrollment selectivity, student expulsions, and increased segregation in charter school populations.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to analyze the network of relations of policy actors surrounding the statewide campaign to pass the charter school Initiative 1240 in Washington State in order to better understand how wealthy individuals and their associated philanthropic organizations influence educational policy.

Research Design: Making use of available tax records, public election information, individual and organizational websites, and institutional and foundation databases, this study uses simple directed graphing techniques from social network analysis to analyze the complex relationships and affiliations of policy actors relative to the campaign to pass charter school Initiative 1240 in the state of Washington.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study concludes that, compared to the average voter in Washington, an elite group of wealthy individuals, either directly through individual donations or indirectly through their affiliated philanthropic organizations, wielded disproportionate influence over the outcome of the charter school initiative in the state, thereby raising serious concerns about the democratic underpinnings of an education policy that impacts all of the children in Washington State. This study also concludes that elite individuals make use of local nonprofit organizations as a mechanism to advance their education policy agenda by funding those nonprofits through the philanthropic organizations affiliated with those same wealthy elites. In light of these conclusions, the authors recommend that a mechanism for more democratic accountability be developed relative to education policy campaigns, initiatives, and legislation.

INTRODUCTION


To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, today’s plutocrats are not like you and I; nor do they resemble the politicians we elect. Even when they assume the authority to set public policies, they are, I fear, not sackable. (Bosworth, 2011, p. 386)


With the backing of both major political parties, billionaire philanthropists, venture capitalists, business leaders, and a growing network of nonprofit organizations and research centers, charter school policy has evolved into a major component of the current education reform movement in the United States (Fabricant & Fine, 2012; Rawls, 2013). As of 2012, all but nine U.S. states allowed charter schools (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2013), and in one of those nine, Washington State, charter school legislation was passed by popular vote in November 2012 (Reed, 2012).


Washington State has a substantive and unique history with regard to charter school reform. The state allows for popular votes on whether or not various initiatives, measures, or referenda (put on the ballot by petition) become law; since 1996, there have been four opportunities for voters to decide if charter schools would be allowed in the state. Washington State voters have affirmed opposition to charter schools three times: In 1996, 54% opposed charters; in 2000, 51.8% opposed charters; and in 2004, 58.3% opposed charters (Corcoran & Stoddard, 2011). In the November 2012 election, however, voters in Washington approved Initiative 1240 (I-1240) by 50.69%, or 41,682 votes (Reed, 2012), legalizing charter schools in the state.


Given that charter school policy in Washington State has been decided by popular vote, the Yes On 1240 WA Coalition for Public Charter Schools’ (hereafter, Yes On 1240) campaign provided an opportunity to understand the influence of a specific collection of policy actors on the adoption of state-level education policy. The Yes On 1240 campaign played a role in the passage of I-1240 as the campaign directed its resources in an attempt to shift the public, political discourse in favor of the passage of the charter school initiative in Washington State. Indeed, the important role of the Yes On 1240 campaign is highlighted by the fact that, as of election day, November 6, 2012, the campaign had received $10.9 million in donations (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a), at the time making it the third largest amount spent on an initiative campaign in state history (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012d). Thus, the campaign to legalize charter schools by popular vote in Washington State provided a unique opportunity to gain insight into the significant relationships between policy actors and state-level education policy adoption.


Using social network analysis, this paper graphs significant relations among actors connected to the successful campaign to pass I-1240. We begin with an overview of the research literature on charter schools, and follow with a discussion of our study methodology, data sources, and conceptual framework. Then we relay the story of I-1240 and the Yes On 1240 campaign, including a series of tables and a directed graph that illustrates the network of relationships among actors associated with the Yes On 1240 campaign. We conclude with a discussion of our findings and what they imply with regard to democracy and education reform.


REVIEW OF LITERATURE


There is a substantial, if contested, research base focusing on charter school effectiveness, particularly related to test score achievement. The largest, most comprehensive national charter school achievement studies found high variability in charter performance among different charter schools across different states, and found overall that charter schools sometimes outperformed regular public schools, but mostly performed the same or worse than their public school counterparts (CREDO, 2009, 2013). These findings have been generally confirmed in studies across multiple contexts (e.g., DiCarlo, 2011; Furgeson et al., 2012; Miron, Coryn, & Mackety, 2007). Charter school enrollment has also been a focus of much research, where concerns have been raised about the high selectivity of which students charter schools allow to enroll, the number of students expelled, counseled out, or disappeared from their rosters, and increased segregation in charter school populations (see, e.g., Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010; Simon, 2013; Welner, 2013).


There is also a growing research base focused on the ideological dimensions of charter school reform as part of the school choice movement (Ravitch, 2010; Scott, Lubienski, & DeBray-Pelot, 2008), as well as the role of philanthropies in that movement (Scott, 2009) and in networks of district-level charter school policy reform funding (Reckhow, 2013). There is, however, currently no research focusing on the process of state-level mechanisms for charter school policy adoption. The current study begins to fill this gap in the research base by analyzing Washington State, the most recent state to legalize charter schools, to better understand the influential networks of policy actors involved with the passage of charter school legislation by popular vote there. Beyond the context of Washington State, we argue that the following approach to policy analysis provides a foundation for better understanding the ways that networks of wealthy elites and their affiliated philanthropies are fundamentally reshaping the educational policy landscape in the United States and beyond.


METHODOLOGY


In this study we use simple directed graphing techniques from social network analysis (Nooy, Mrvar, & Batagelj, 2005; Wasserman & Faust, 1994). Social network analysis (SNA) techniques are increasingly used to study complex interactions and affiliations across a variety of educational policy contexts (Daly, 2010; Song & Miskel, 2007). Social network analysis represents an entire family of analytical and theoretical tools used to examine and interpret relations between sets of actors and events. These tools can range from simple directed and undirected graphs to more formal modeling approaches (see, e.g., Carrington, Scott, & Wasserman, 2005). Wasserman and Faust (1994, p. 4) distinguished SNA from other forms of inquiry in multiple ways, a few of which are especially relevant to the present analysis. First, actors and their actions are assumed to be interdependent. Next, the ties between actors constitute the medium through which material and nonmaterial resources are transferred. Finally, an actor’s position within the constellation of ties structuring the network provides constraints and affordances for action.


The use of theories and methods from SNA in education research is certainly not a new phenomenon. Sociologists of education, for example, have used these techniques to study tracking and peer group structures (Hallinan & Sorensen, 1985), course-taking patterns (Friedkin & Thomas, 1997), classroom resistance (McFarland, 2001), and desegregation and interracial contact (Feld & Carter, 1998) among other topics. More recently, education researchers have drawn upon social network analysis within the realm of education policy and reform (Daly, 2010; Song & Miskel, 2007). This development has seen a rise in “policy network analysis” (Ball, 2012), in which researchers aim to construct the complex systems through which organizational and individual actors shape educational policies and reform movements (e.g., Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, & Kmitta, 2012; Reckhow, 2013). The focus on policy networks is increasingly relevant as these new forms of governance structures expand in scope and power.


In this study, we utilize simple directed graphing techniques to formally illustrate the network of relations through which the flow of material and nonmaterial resources were mobilized in the attempt to influence the outcome of charter school I-1240 in Washington State’s 2012 general election vis-à-vis the Yes On 1240 campaign. The directed graph in our analysis is constituted by dichotomous relations. That is, the directed relations are either present (1) or not present (0). The directed lines in the graph (called arcs) represent a transfer of material and nonmaterial resources from an individual or organization to another individual or organization. The primary form of material resources is financial, representing the millions of dollars donated directly to the campaign or to campaign-affiliated organizations by individuals, organizations, and philanthropies. The nonmaterial resources, on the other hand, are those symbolic goods such as expertise, intellectual prestige, or technical policy reports designed to bolster legitimacy for charter school reform.


DATA SOURCES


Data for this study was collected from multiple sources. For basic organizational information and relationships, we accessed various web pages formally associated with the Yes On 1240 campaign (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012c), those of affiliated nonprofit organizations taking credit as founding leadership for the Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012b)—also evidenced by staff time and other organizational resources donated in kind to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012c), and a local organization that, through the research process, we identified as explicitly connected to the Yes On 1240 campaign, the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Relevant funding relationships were mainly identified using a combination of foundation databases (e.g., Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013), tax returns for foundations (Foundation Center, 2013), and institutional reports (e.g., University of Washington Bothell Office of Research, 2013). Cash and in-kind contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign were tracked using the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission database (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a). For the purposes of this study, we included only what we deemed were significant contributors to the Yes On 1240 campaign (see Table 1) by setting a parameter of those donors that contributed $50,000.00 or more to the campaign in cash or in kind, resulting in 21 contributions accounting for nearly 98% of the $10.9 million total donated (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a).


To construct the graphs, we created a matrix of directed relations based upon collected data. In a matrix of directed relations, actor i can direct a relation to actor j (ni ® nj), but this does not necessarily mean that the relation is reciprocated (i.e., nj ® ni). In less formal terms, order matters. For each ordered pair in the matrix, a 1 denotes the presence of a directed relation, whereas a 0 indicates the absence of a relation. Thus, this particular graph depicts whether or not a relation exists between a pair of actors and in which direction, but it does not reveal any information about the overall magnitude of the relation (see Tables 1 & 2 for the latter information). Finally, we report indegrees and outdegrees for selected nodes, as well as the graph density (D). The indegree of a node, ni, represents the total number of arcs terminating at ni, whereas the outdegree represents the total number of arcs originating at ni. The density of a directed graph ranges from 0 (no arcs present) to 1 (all possible arcs present) and is defined formally as D = L/g(g-1), where L is the total number of arcs and g(g-1) represents the total number of possible arcs.1


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


As our title “sponsors of policy” suggests, our analysis is guided by Brandt’s (1998) work on “sponsors of literacy.” For Brandt, sponsors are “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress or withhold” access to resources “and gain advantage by it in some way” (p. 166). Brandt continued by explaining that


sponsors . . . are powerful figures who bankroll events or smooth the way for initiates. Usually richer, more knowledgeable, and more entrenched than the sponsored, sponsors nevertheless enter a reciprocal relationship with those they underwrite. They lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association. (p. 167)


Understanding sponsorship is particularly critical within studies of education policy because, in Brandt’s words, “Although the interests of the sponsor and sponsored do not have to converge (and, in fact, may conflict) sponsors nevertheless set the terms for access . . . and wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty” (pp. 166–167). Thus, “in whatever form, sponsors deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (p. 168). Here, we reframe Brandt’s discussion of literacy sponsorship within education policy studies to analyze what we term “sponsors of policy” as an appropriate and robust way of making sense of networks of influence among policy actors within the context of the Yes On 1240 campaign in Washington State.


In applying Brandt’s (1998) work to the realm of education policy, we identify two specific forms of policy sponsorship: material sponsorship and symbolic sponsorship. Material sponsorship involves the transfer and flow of material resources such as direct financial donations to campaigns or ancillary organizations such as research centers and nonprofit coalition groups. In addition, material sponsorship includes direct labor, such as the coordination of campaign activities. In contrast to material sponsorship, the symbolic form of sponsorship represents the transfer and flow of nonmaterial resources such as intellectual prestige, scientific support, individual renown, or community representation used to enhance the symbolic power of a given policy agenda. Symbolic sponsorship, then, is still the product of labor, but the specific value and power of symbolic resources stem from the production of belief that the resources have intrinsic value. That is, “[t]hese practices, functioning as practical negations, can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 74).


Although both forms of policy sponsorship are the product of labor, the symbolic form does not carry the same weight as material sponsorship. Indeed, the mobilization of financial resources is the strongest tool any initiative campaign can utilize. Yet, the strength of material sponsorship is also its weakness. Material sponsors must stand naked, exposing their influential intentions and self-interests for all to see. Symbolic sponsorship, on the other hand, is powerful precisely because of the appearance that it is driven not by any self-interest, per se, but rather the moral authority of doing the “right thing.” This authority can come from an endorsement by a prestigious individual or organization, or through the support of policy research and other technical documents. Thus, the influence of symbolic sponsorship resides in the recognition of the intrinsic legitimacy of the sponsor rather than the raw exchange value of material resources.


These two forms of sponsorship—material and symbolic—are not independent forms, however. For instance, as we illustrate below, policy actors utilize material sponsorship by transferring financial resources to research centers that produce technical reports that, in turn, constitute a form of symbolic sponsorship through scientific support and intellectual prestige. It should be clear, then, that these forms of policy sponsorship are consistent with the theoretical assumptions of our methodology. That is, the network approach allows us to illustrate the contextual structure of directed relations in which sponsors exercise direct and indirect influence over the policymaking process. Thus, each type of sponsorship corresponds to a specific transfer and flow of resources through the network, which collectively shapes policy processes and outcomes. In what follows, we explain the evolution of the I-1240 and the Yes On 1240 campaign, and analyze the connections among policy actors through the framework of sponsorship as we have developed it here.


INITIATIVE 1240 AND THE YES ON 1240 CAMPAIGN


Functionally, the immediate origins of I-1240 can be traced to January 2012, when two companion charter school bills were introduced into the Washington State house and senate (Rosenthal, 2012). Among other details, these bills set a specific number of charter schools to be authorized over 5 years, established three charter school authorizers, established “transformational zone districts” allowing for state takeover of low-performing schools, and included a parent–teacher charter conversion trigger that would allow a majority of teachers or parents to petition to convert an existing public school into a charter school (Westbrook, 2012). Under state Democratic leadership, these bills were killed in committee, a move that provoked severe criticism from the local media (Seattle Times Editorial Board, 2012).


After the original bills were killed in the Washington State legislature, charter advocates then drafted I-1240, which was filed with the state by the League of Education Voters (LEV) chief of staff, Tania de Sa Campos (League of Education Voters, 2012; Sa Campos, 2012). Similar to the legislative bills introduced earlier in 2012, I-1240 contained provisions to establish 40 charter schools over 5 years, establish two charter authorizers (local school boards or an appointed state-level charter school commission), set up appointed charter school boards for charter oversight, and allow a parent–teacher charter conversion trigger, among other details (Sa Campos, 2012). With $2.26 million in donations—mostly from Bill Gates Jr., Amazon.com’s Bezos family, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer (also a LEV board member), and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen— enough signatures were collected by paid signature gatherers to successfully put I-1240 on the Fall 2012 Washington ballot (Callaghan, 2012).


I-1240 supporters Stand for Children™, LEV, Partnership for Learning, and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) came together to cofound and coordinate Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012a), taking public responsibility for directing the Yes On 1240 campaign (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012b), as evidenced by their providing in-kind donations to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012c). As such, these organizations provided leadership in coordinating every aspect of the campaign—managing financial activities; on-the-ground field organization; press releases; TV, web, and radio advertising; messaging; and making public presentations, among other activities (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012b). As of election day, November 6, 2012, the Yes On 1240 campaign had received $10.9 million in donations (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a). At the time of the election, the $10.9 million spent to support charter school reform via the Yes On 1240 campaign represents the third largest amount spent on an initiative campaign in Washington State history (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012d). The Yes On 1240 campaign used these millions for phone banks, direct mail, on-the-ground field organization, and signs, and they were able to devote over $5 million specifically for web, radio, and television advertising (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012b).


Leading up to election day, Partnership for Learning (2012), in conjunction with researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), published their report, Examining Charters: How Public Charter Schools Can Work in Washington State (Lake, Gross, & Maas, 2012), which made several explicit references to I-1240 as a good charter school law. Further, CRPE founder and charter school advocate, Paul Hill, was prominently featured in a Yes On 1240 television advertisement advocating for the passage of I-1240 (Yes On 1240, 2012b). In November 2012, citizens of Washington State voted to approve I-1240 by 50.69%, or 41,682 votes out of just over 3,020,000 total cast (Reed, 2012).


FINDINGS


In this section we present the findings of our network analysis in two phases. First, through two tables, we present data on cash and in-kind contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign and funding relationships between campaign donors, affiliated philanthropies, and organizational campaign supporters (Tables 1 and 2). Second, we visualize these relationships through a simple directed graph that traces the flows of sponsorship (material and symbolic) among policy actors (Figure 1).


YES ON 1240 CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS


Several important findings arise when we analyze the contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign.


Table 1: Yes On I-1240 Campaign Cash and In-kind Contributions of $50k and More

 

Yes On 1240 Donor

Donation Amount

1.

Bill Gates Jr. – Microsoft cofounder and current chairman

$3,053,000.00

2.

Alice Walton – heiress; daughter of Walmart founder, Sam Walton

$1,700,000.00

3.

Vulcan Inc. – founded by Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder

$1,600,000.00

4.

Nicolas Hanauer – venture capitalist

$1,000,000.00

5.

Mike Bezos – father of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos

$500,000.00

6.

Jackie Bezos – mother of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos

$500,000.00

7.

Connie Ballmer – wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

$500,000.00

8.

Anne Dinning – managing director D.E. Shaw Investments

$250,000.00

9.

Michael Wolf – Yahoo! Inc. board of directors

$250,000.00

10.

Katherine Binder – EMFCO Holdings chairwoman

$250,000.00

11.

Eli Broad – real estate mogul

$200,000.00

12.

Benjamin Slivka – formerly Microsoft; DreamBox Learning cofounder

$124,200.00

13.

Reed Hastings – Netflix cofounder and CEO

$100,000.00

14.

Microsoft Corporation

$100,000.00

15.

Gabe Newell – formerly Microsoft; Valve Corporation cofounder

$100,000.00

16.

Doris Fisher – Gap Inc. cofounder

$100,000.00

17.

Kemper Holdings LLC – local Puget Sound developer

$110,000.00

18.

CSG Channels

$60,000.00

19.

Education Reform Now

$50,000.00

20.

Bruce McCaw –McCaw Cellular founder

$50,000.00

21.

Jolene McCaw – spouse of Bruce McCaw

$50,000.00

Source: Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (2012a)


Table 1 highlights that $10.65 million in total, or almost 98% of the $10.9 million raised for the Yes On 1240 campaign, was funded by 21 individuals and organizations who each donated more than $50,000 to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a).


Notably, Bill Gates Jr. is the biggest contributor ($3M) to the campaign, nearly doubling the next biggest contributions coming from Walmart heiress Alice Walton ($1.7M) and Vulcan Inc. ($1.6M),2 Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s company. As a more general finding, these amounts indicate that a number of select wealthy individuals with no immediate connection to Washington State (e.g., Eli Broad and Alice Walton) demonstrated a vested interest in charter school policy in the state. Another finding that emerges from the data is that wealthy individuals who are connected to the technology sector also demonstrated a vested interest in promoting charter school policy in Washington State (12 of the top 21 contributors to Yes On 1240 are strongly connected to the technology sector). Additionally, as might be expected given the interconnectedness of any sector of industry, several of these individuals have historical and industry-related connections to Microsoft Inc. and Microsoft Inc. cofounder and chairman, Bill Gates Jr.


It is also of value to highlight the $50,000.00 donation to the Yes On 1240 campaign from Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee because it illustrates the tightly woven interconnectedness of organizations and funding structures associated with education policy reform advocacy. New York State tax records from 2006 explicitly indicate that Education Reform Now, Inc., Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee, and DFER all share officers, personnel, office space, and paymasters (Libby, 2012). Tax records from 2007 further indicate that Education Reform Now Inc. and Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee share these same resources (New York State Office of the Attorney General, 2013). Thus, it is difficult to determine where DFER, Education Reform Now Inc., and Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee begin and end individually because, in essence, they represent a financially intertwined cluster of three organizations that seem to operate as a single organization with overlapping staff and resources. Consequently, even though tax records do not allow us to fully understand the exact relationship, the $50,000.00 donation to the Yes On 1240 campaign from Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee is functionally also a donation from Education Reform Now Inc. and DFER.


YES ON 1240 CONNECTED ORGANIZATIONS


As discussed above, four organizations, LEV, DFER, Stand for Children, and Partnership for Learning, publicly claimed credit for leading and coordinating the Yes On 1240 WA Coalition for Public Charter Schools (Yes On 1240, 2012a). An analysis of the in-kind donations to the Yes On 1240 campaign (that is, donations of labor or other services that are given cash value and added to the campaign donation total) supports this claim: Those four organizations predominate the in-kind donations database and are the only organizations listing “staff time” as donated in kind to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012c). Further, as a university-based research center, they cannot be listed as having provided in-kind donations (or any donations) directly to a political campaign in the state. Because of their active role in providing direct, nonmonetary support for the Yes On 1240 campaign vis-à-vis being highlighted prominently in a campaign video (Yes On 1240, 2012b) and authoring a research report explicitly in support of I-1240 (Lake et al., 2012), we have included the CRPE here as a “connected organization” for their symbolic contribution to the campaign through the lending of their expertise.


PHILANTHROPIC CONNECTIONS TO THE YES ON 1240 CAMPAIGN


Cross referencing information gathered from the Google search engine, philanthropy websites, and available tax records (Foundation Center, 2013) produced the following 11 foundations directly connected to major donors to the Yes On 1240 campaign (in alphabetical order): Apex Foundation (formerly the Bruce & Jolene McCaw Foundation), Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Corabelle Lumps Foundation (formerly the Anne Dinning and Michael Wolf Foundation), the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund (connected through the Connie and Steve Ballmer advised Biel Fund),3 Lochland Foundation (Katherine Binder, cofounder, officer, and contributor), The Walton Family Foundation, and Wissner-Slivka Foundation. Using foundation databases, foundation reports, available tax records, organizational websites, and institutional reports, we then looked for whether or not these foundations provided funding to the Yes On 1240 campaign-related organizations.


Table 2: Philanthropic Support for Yes On 1240 Connected Organizations

Organization

Amount

Foundation

Center on Reinventing Public Education

$8,578,000

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

$701,000

The Walton Family Foundation

$512,813

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Education Reform Now (Democrats for Education Reform)

$2,925,000

The Walton Family Foundation

$2,481,716

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

$600,000

Doris & Donald Fisher Fund

$500,000

Corabelle Lumps Foundation

$15,000

Bezos Family Foundation

League of Education Voters

$4,790,000

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

$257,000

Lochland Foundation

$160,139

Bezos Family Foundation

$1,000

Apex Foundation

Partnership for Learning

$4,700,000

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Stand for Children™

$9,000,000

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

$2,857,945

The Walton Family Foundation

$350,000

Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund

$120,304

Bezos Family Foundation

$55,000

Wissner-Slivka Foundation

$25,000

Lochland Foundation

$1,000

Apex Foundation

(Sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013; Foundation Center, 2013; Libby, 2012; New York State Office of the Attorney General, 2013; Stand for Children, 2013; University of Washington Bothell Office of Research, 2013; University of Washington Bothell Office of Sponsored Programs, 2013)


As Table 2 indicates, the philanthropic foundations connected to major contributors to the Yes On 1240 campaign provided a range of support directly to three of the four campaign-coordinating organizations and the CRPE: the Apex Foundation’s $1,000.00 contributions to each LEV and Stand for Children were the smallest, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s total contribution of $9,000,000.00 to Stand for Children was the largest. Further, while DFER received no direct philanthropic support, its sister organization Education Reform Now received ample support from campaign-connected philanthropies, and, as detailed above, the overlap of resources between the cluster of Education Reform Now Inc., Education Reform Now Advocacy, and DFER, is very fluid. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the most prominent here, haven given over $27 million total to Yes On 1240 campaign-connected organizations across multiple years, grants, and contracts. The Walton Foundation is second-most prominent, having contributed $6.48 million to campaign-connected organizations, followed by the Broad Foundation at $2.99 million in support for campaign-connected organizations. There is a precipitous drop in total support after these three, potentially indicating smaller amounts of financial support originating from smaller foundations (e.g., Lochland Foundation or the Bezos Family Foundation). Regardless of the amount, foundation support of the organizations directly involved in the Yes On 1240 campaign is indicative of ideological alignment around specific education reforms (in this case, charter schools) between funders and grantees/contractors.


A YES ON 1240 NETWORK OF POLICY ACTORS


In order to more clearly visualize the relationships among individual and organizational supporters of the Yes On 1240 campaign, we developed a simple directed graph that illustrates lines of sponsorship (material and symbolic) among and between significant campaign actors and the philanthropic organizations that support them through material sponsorship.


Figure 1: A social network analysis of the Yes On 1240 campaign


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The density (D) of the graph in Figure 1 is 0.046, which means that 4.6% of the total possible arcs are present in the graph. The sparseness of the graph indicates that the network is constituted by a number of minimally connected nodes such as dyads and triads. Not surprisingly, the most “prestigious” actor in this directed graph is the Yes On I-1240 campaign, which is the recipient of 27 arcs. All but one of the arcs represents material sponsorship in the form of financial donations, with the arc coming from CRPE representing a purely symbolic form of sponsorship via a formal endorsement and a technical report written in support of the law. On the other hand, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (outdegree = 4) is the most central transmitter of resources in the graph, giving a range of financial resources to all of the organizations except DFER. By itself, however, the degree of a particular node is not a direct measure of power. Rather, the degree is a measure of centrality within the network. Thus, while it is true that central actors play important roles in the network, this centrality does not equate to raw power. For instance, with an outdegree of 2, Bill Gates Jr. is not a central actor in the network. However, he is by far the largest direct donor to the campaign and is largely responsible for funding the most central acting foundation in the network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


The positions of the foundations are distributed across the entire network. Next to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, the Bezos Family Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation also occupy relatively central positions. The former, with an outdegree of 3, contributes material sponsorship in the form of financial resources to LEV, CRPE, and Stand for Children. The Walton Family Foundation, meanwhile, makes similar contributions to CRPE and Stand for Children, along with Education Reform Now. The remaining foundations are more selective in their sponsorship. For example, on the “west” side of the network, the Apex Foundation and Lochland Foundation each provide material sponsorship to LEV and Stand for Children, while the Wissner-Slivka Foundation and the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund provide material sponsorship only to Stand for Children. Positioned on the “east” side of the network, the Corabelle Lumps Foundation and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund provide material sponsorship to Education Reform Now, whereas The Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation also provides material sponsorship to Education Reform Now along with the CRPE.


The “west” and “east” side split in the focus of philanthropic funding is indicative of a pattern of support for different organizations relative to the Yes On 1240 campaign. Notably, most of those foundations on the “west” side of the network (Gates, Bezos, Wissner-Slivka, Lochland, and Apex) are located in Washington State, and these foundations mainly direct resources at the regionally based nonprofit organizations spearheading the Yes On 1240 Campaign. The most “prestigious” of these groups is Stand for Children (indegree = 7), which is based in Portland, Oregon and has an office in the state of Washington. The only apparent exception to this pattern is the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund’s donation to Stand for Children, since Goldman Sachs is located in New York. However, as outlined in footnote 3, Goldman Sachs supports Stand for Children at the direction of Connie and Steve Ballmer, both residents of Washington State. Thus, six of the seven total arcs of resources flowing into Stand for Children come from regionally based foundation actors, the only exception being the arc coming from The Walton Family Foundation. Education Reform Now (indegree = 6) holds a similar position in the “east” side of the network, which has receiving arcs from the four philanthropies located outside of the state of Washington—the only exception being the arc from the Washington State-based Bezos Foundation. The relative social positions of the foundations within the network, then, approximately align to a local/nonlocal geographic differentiation vis-à-vis proximity to the statewide initiative.


DISCUSSION


Revisiting our conceptual framework, as Brandt (1998) explained, sponsors are “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress or withhold” access to resources “and gain advantage by it in some way” (p. 166). Further, sponsors “lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association” (p. 167).


Our findings above illustrate two broad types of sponsorship leveraged in the effort to pass I-1240 and legalize charter schools in Washington State. The first and predominant type is what we are referring to as material sponsorship, which in this context constitutes financial resources in the form of direct campaign donations; foundation grants and contracts to pro-charter, nonprofit organizations and research centers; and labor and staff time required to coordinate the Yes On 1240 campaign. The second form and less prevalent type represented in the graph is symbolic sponsorship. This type of sponsorship takes the form of nonmaterial resources that bolster symbolic power, such as expert reports supportive of charter schools and endorsements from figures perceived to have academic prestige. Thus, as noted above, these forms of sponsorship are inter-related since the financial forms of sponsorship offered by philanthropic foundations make possible certain forms of symbolic sponsorship, although the former is not necessarily a precondition of the latter. Indeed, symbolic sponsorship can also initiate momentum for additional material sponsorship, as policy advocates frequently use technical reports (especially those including public opinion polls) to persuade donors to contribute to the campaign.


Arcs from other organizations denote the transmission of other types of symbolic resources. For instance, CRPE’s founder, Paul Hill, was featured prominently in a Yes On 1240 television advertisement (Yes on 1240, 2012b). In this advertisement, Hill is portrayed as a professor who has studied charter schools and, based upon his investigations, concluded that I-1240 is a good law. In addition, by authoring the “Examining Charters” (Lake et al., 2012) report, researchers at CRPE contributed expertise to the Yes On 1240 campaign and used their report to argue in favor of the initiative. Alternatively, by publishing that same report, Partnership for Learning loaned its infrastructure (itself a product of the material sponsorship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) to disseminate the report’s perspective on charter schools in Washington State. Taken together, through their symbolic sponsorship these two organizations sought to shift the public and political discourse in favor of charter school reform in Washington State leading up to the November 2012 ballot. Thus, while not as prevalent as material sponsorship, symbolic forms of sponsorship play a crucial role in attempting to bolster the empirical and normative weight of the policy.


The results of our analysis illustrate a network of directed ties through which wealthy individuals were able to leverage significant influence on the adoption of charter school policy in Washington State in two directions: directly through cash or in-kind contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign, and indirectly through the mediation of their affiliated philanthropic foundations. Indeed, the philanthropic foundations act as a conduit for the material sponsorship of wealthy individuals to make its way to the organizational policy actors doing the local material and symbolic work “closer to the ground” to influence policy adoption. Although directed, this influence is not always direct, nor is it simply financial. Rather, the network graph in Figure 1 illustrates a direct and indirect flow of material and symbolic resources made possible by distinct forms of policy sponsorship. Thus, this study provides an illustration of how actors’ strategic use of policy sponsorship is contingent upon their position (e.g., legal, economic, and cultural) within the network of policy influence. In the next section we speak more directly to these forms of sponsorship and why they matter to education policy.


It is critical to remember that sponsorship is not neutral, for as Brandt (1998) reminded us, “In whatever form, sponsors deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (p. 168). In this case, one piece of the “ideological freight” is a commitment to advancing charter school policy. Indeed, this commitment is a requirement for the organizations discussed here to gain the underwriting of the material sponsors of policy: They received funding from affiliated philanthropies because of their organization’s ideological commitment to charter school reform. This is also true of the arcs connecting the wealthy contributors and their respective foundations to the Yes On 1240 network depicted in Figure 1. Not only did these individuals provide material sponsorship of the Yes On 1240 campaign, but their ideological commitment to charter schools also resulted in their material cosponsorship (with other foundations) of intersecting nonprofit organizations and the pro-charter research center (CRPE). In turn, these nonprofit organizations provided material sponsorship to the Yes On 1240 campaign, and the pro-charter research center provided symbolic sponsorship as well.


Sponsorship also buys “credit by association” (Brandt, 1998, p. 167) for the sponsors of policy, and this credit by association is a form of symbolic sponsorship. In the present study, the wealthy individuals and affiliated foundations are credited with being a driving force for education reform within specific discourses of creating quality schools for low-income children (see, e.g., Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012c). For instance, because the Yes On 1240 campaign was driven mainly through the material sponsorship of local nonprofit community organizations as well as the symbolic sponsorship of a local research center, wealthy individuals and their foundations are credited for being associated with what appears to be a grassroots movement for education change. Thus, instead of appearing to be a campaign largely driven by the material sponsorship of millionaire and billionaire donors and their affiliated philanthropies (which in reality it was), the Yes On 1240 campaign appears to have the symbolic sponsorship of broad-based, grassroots, community support.


However, as Barkan (2012) explained, what appears to be grassroots symbolic sponsorship can actually be coming from “Astroturf” organizations:


When an outside organization hires and pays for staff and vote solicitors and then “donates” their work to a candidate, the work looks like grassroots organizing but isn’t. It is “[A]stroturfing”—a term the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is believed to have coined in 1985. Astroturfing is political activity designed to appear unsolicited, autonomous, and community-rooted without actually being so. (p. 53)


By lending their support to the education reform agenda of the philanthropies through their own symbolic sponsorship of I-1240, pro-charter, nonprofit organizations and the educational research center fundamentally aid these wealthy elite and their affiliated foundations in legitimating charter schools within public discourse, and this helps to garner the support for charter schools from various groups within Washington State.


In sum, our analysis here (see Figure 1) finds material sponsorship only preceding and supporting symbolic sponsorship, as was the case, for instance, with the aforementioned Yes On 1240 activities associated with the CRPE. Additionally, as we have discussed above, material sponsorship often carries symbolic power with it: The philanthropic foundations are seen as doing good, the wealthy individuals are seen as contributing positively to society, and the organizations receiving philanthropic funding both gain the prestige associated with their foundation supporters and give the prestige of being nonprofit organizations that appear to be more closely aligned with grassroots communities. In these ways, we might think of material sponsorship acting as a “carrier signal” for symbolic sponsorship, such that the provision of material resources simultaneously triggers the broadcast of symbolic meaning as well.


Further, our analysis here finds the symbolic sponsorship provided through credit by association serves the wealthy and their foundations in three concrete ways. First it reflects directly back into the public sphere and contributes to the creation of a public image of goodness and caring for others. Second, the credit by association serves to strengthen the network of sponsorship because the presence of prominent, well-connected, and important business people and philanthropists draws others into the network, thereby solidifying the strength and influence of the network of sponsorship. Third, credit by association is a form of symbolic sponsorship that functionally enables the superwealthy to influence policy through raw financial power, but to do so through the shield provided by the symbolic power offered by foundations and local organizations.


IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS


Given the passage of I-1240, our findings and analysis raise serious concerns regarding the disproportionate power of super wealthy individuals and their related philanthropic organizations relative to public education policy and the democratic decision-making process of individual voters. In the case of the most recent Washington State charter school Initiative 1240, it is clear to us that these wealthy individuals wielded an inordinate amount of power well beyond that of the average person in the state of Washington. Further, the power of these wealthy individuals extended largely from their vast resources and not because of any expertise on the subject of public education reform (Bosworth, 2011). As such, the passage of I-1240 in Washington State raises concerns that billionaires and their philanthropies have become what Karier (1972) referred to as a virtual “fourth branch of government” that is able to carry its reform agenda and ideology forward into fully realized education policy through sheer force of material and symbolic sponsorship, but with little public accountability.


The combination of vast wealth and strong influence over education policy creates an economic and political tension because, as Scott (2009) explained, “Wealth that comes largely from favorable public policies is now directed into mostly tax-exempt foundations, where trustees and philanthropists directly shape public policy for the poor, without the public deliberative process that might have been invoked over school reform policies were that money in the public coffers” (p. 128). The latter portion of this point is particularly salient to our findings here, for as Ravitch (2010) reminded us:


These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power. (p. 200)


Given the disproportionate power outlined in our analysis and network (Figure 1), we are concerned with what appears to be a lack of a mechanism for public accountability for these wealthy individuals, their affiliated philanthropies, and their agenda for education reform.


It is clear that philanthropies have a growing effect on public education policy (Reckhow, 2013), and our paper suggests the need for further study of the formation of state-level education reforms, as well as the study of the increasingly complex relationships among wealthy individuals, their respective philanthropies, and the networks of sponsorship they utilize to influence public education policy at all levels. Our network-analytic approach to examining this issue in Washington State can provide a foundation for additional studies into the ways these networks are altering the landscape of education policy in the United States and beyond. Finally, considering the lack of public accountability for the wealthy individuals and their respective philanthropies influencing public education reform, our paper further suggests the need for a targeted, critical discussion about how to integrate an accountability mechanism through which members of the public can scrutinize the policy agendas of private individuals and organizations that seek to directly intervene in the system of public education.


Notes


1 Of course, the denominator (i.e., all possible arcs [g(g-1)]) is established by what is quantitatively possible, not that which is theoretically plausible. For example, it is not theoretically plausible for the Yes On 1240 campaign to direct financial resources to Bill Gates Jr. (or any other actor in this network).


2 As of the November 6, 2012 election, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission database listed Paul Allen as a Yes On 1240 contributor of $1.6 million. However, in a May 15, 2013 search of the same database, Paul Allen was no longer listed as a donor and his company, Vulcan Inc., was listed instead.


3 The Stand for Children Annual Report 2010 (Stand for Children, 2011) indicates that Connie and Steve Ballmer donated an amount between $50,000 and $99,999 via the Biel Fund of the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund. This is in agreement with tax records for the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund, which indicate the Fund granted $75,000 to Stand for Children in 2010 (Foundation Center, 2013). Stand for Children also lists Connie and Steve Ballmer as donors at the $100,000–$249,999 level in both 2008 and 2009 (Stand for Children, 2009, 2010) and at the $50,000–$99,999 level in 2011 (Stand for Children, 2012). However, Stand for Children does not list the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund as donating in any of those years despite the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund tax records showing donations to Stand for Children for $100,000 in 2008 and 2009 each, and $75,000 in 2011 (Foundation Center, 2013). Given the discrepancy between the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund tax record and the Stand for Children annual reports, and given the explicit link established between the two via Connie and Steve Ballmer in the Stand for Children 2011 Annual Report, and given that Connie and Steve Ballmer are listed at levels of support that correspond with those donations indicated by Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund tax records in years 2008, 2009, and 2011, the evidence suggests that all financial support from the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund given to Stand for Children in the years 2008–2011 was at the direction of Connie and Steve Ballmer.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 8, 2014, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17387, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:30:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Wayne Au
    University of Washington, Bothell
    E-mail Author
    WAYNE AU is an Associate Professor in the Education Program at the University of Washington, Bothell, and he is an editor for the social justice magazine, Rethinking Schools. His research interests include critical analyses of high-stakes testing, critical educational theory and practice, curriculum studies, and multicultural education. Most recently, he co-authored the article, “Rethinking schools: Enacting a vision for social justice within US education” for Critical Studies in Education and co-edited Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools.
  • Joseph Ferrare
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH J. FERRARE is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation at the University of Kentucky. His research interests are situated in the fields of sociology and education policy analysis. Joe's current work examines historical and contemporary inequities in patterns of education attainment and the network governance structures working to shape these patterns through market based reforms. His work in these areas of interest has appeared in a diverse array of journals including Sociology of Education, The Journal of Higher Education, Teachers College Record, Journal of Education Policy, Critical Studies in Education, and Journal of the Learning Sciences. He recently co-edited a book (Routledge) with Wayne Au titled, Mapping Corporate Education Reform: Power and Policy Networks in the Neoliberal State.
 
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