Breaking News: Readers Everywhere are Yawning!
Had I plotted webs of union relationships, commenters like “duh” - who wrote, “Stop interpreting every web of relationships as some kind of evil empire” – would have me canonized. Consider this post at EIA, or how much was made of NEA’s contribution to Fair Test. If those relationships are important to uncover, so are these.
Let me take a preliminary swing at the “So What?” question:
In my view, what’s emerging is a new education policymaking configuration. This is not simply the well-researched “policy network” eduwonk writes about, but one that includes quasi-academic publications, service providers, and policy research/advocacy organizations, with a small group of foundations providing financial support to many network members. It is the overlap between different spheres – press, service providing, research, and philanthropists with deep pockets – that makes this network unique and important to watch. Readers did a bang up job of identifying the reasons we should care:
1) The Trouble with Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: As Policy Prof. wrote, “these organizations often give the impression of a grassroots groundswell of support for radical change in education. That may well be true, but this "small world" of interlocking advocacy groups should hardly be taken as evidence of this.” Dean Millot commented that the network can be understood as a strategic alliance, and observers of education policy making should recognize it as such. (Check out all of his comments on this debate here and here.) eduwonk is correct that there's nothing inherently sinister about these relationships, and I agree so long as we call it what it is - an alliance.
2) The Insider/Outsider Problem: Dean noted that “policy marketing shops are generally trying to create the impression of disinterested parties purely interested in the public interest.” Readers pointed out that it’s hard to distinguish policy research from policy advocacy when you’re not on the inside. For example, Kelsey, who may be the only blogospheric person to whom eduwonk has ever apologized, wrote, “Even with the noted transparency, it requires a certain amount of insider knowledge and a lot of time to make these connections.” Reader “duh, duh” likened this problem to the student loan issue, writing:
We shouldn't be surprised that college loan office personnel and lending companies "know each other." They have worked closely together for years, and one could charitably argue that they are both interested in seeing students get a good loan package at a low rate. But how can the public be assured of this? Not surprisingly, parents and students were outraged by the revelation of these close ties.
3) The Effect on Public Discourse: Readers noted the potential for a small reinforcing group to dominate the ed reform debate. As Dean wrote over at eduwonk, “We’re left with an unhealthy narrowing of public discourse in each group and across the spectrum.” Taking on the issue of democratic engagement and trust from a different perspective, reader “duh, duh” explained, “Relationships do matter. The public’s trust in its institutions is predicated in part on the separation of certain interested parties.”
In terms of organizational disclosure, eduwonk asks for specific suggestions for improving transparency. My view is that journalists are the ones who’ve dropped the ball here – after all, all of this information is available on these organizations’ websites and the key funders can be identified from their tax forms. Nonetheless, here are three easy ones: 1) Board biographies should include all of the other boards on which members sit, 2) Organizations’ 990 forms should be available on their websites, and 3) The specific amounts granted by each foundation should be listed prominently on their “about our funders” pages.
The larger issue is whether we should broaden conceptions of conflicts of interest to include not only material, but ideological, conflicts - readers, we need you to weigh in here.
Thank you to all of the readers who took the time to comment. The debate’s not over yet, folks - I’ll continue to explore this issue this week.