Foundations push school privatization

Conservative-leaning foundations have offered significant aid to the “school choice” movement, building both financial and political capital, a new report says.

The “school choice” movement, which advocates the privatization of education as a solution to public school shortcomings, has amassed a substantial support network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and parents and scholarship organizations that in turn boast a wide sampling of foundational support.

A recent study released by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy examined the data from 2002 to 2006 of 132 such organizations promoting school choice.

These groups ranged from small operatives to ones with multi-million-dollar budgets and provided research and support primarily to school vouchers and K-12 education tax-credit programs.

Supporting this sector were 1,212 foundations, most of them conservatively oriented. Taken in aggregate, they managed to infuse more than $380 million total into 104 of the 132 organizations studied; some years, their total grants in this area exceeded $100 million, the report says.

The Walton Family Foundation proved a clear leader in funding school choice, giving a total of $25 million in 2005.

Other top supporters included the Lynde and Harry F. Bradley Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and John Templeton Foundation.

Except for the Gates Foundation, which supported school-choice groups for reasons other than school vouchers, the big foundation supporters of those groups are considered ideologically conservative, the report says.

Twenty-nine additional foundations from this group gave more than $500,000 each.

The report says foundation strategies in funding school choice tend to differ from traditional approaches.

“What impresses me the most about these school choice funders is their movement-building strategy,” Aaron Dorfman, executive director of NCRP, says in a statement. “They’re targeted. They’re organized. They utilize effective grantmaking practices that other foundations can learn from to build more support for other issues they care about.”

These foundations, for example, were more likely to give unrestricted general operating support, a tactic that allows greater flexibility in grantee work plans over time, in addition to indicating a high level of trust in those organizations.

These foundations were also more likely to pay out more than the required five percent of their assets annually, the report says.

This influx of philanthropic capital has helped build political support for school choice as well, the study showed. In addition to 501(c)3 charitable organizations, foundations gave to political candidates, parties and political action committees that promoted school voucher or education tax credit programs.

Washington, D.C., and the states of Georgia, Florida and Vermont have school voucher programs.

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