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Follow the Money?

Note: Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is guest-posting this week.

"Follow the money" can be good advice. Knowing who is footing the bill--for a political campaign, policy notion, or advocacy group--doesn't tell you all you need to know; candidates, policies, and organizational platforms need to be judged ultimately on their own merits. But you're right to put on your skeptic's glasses if Walton Family Foundation is sponsoring a conference on elected school boards; if the American Federation of Teachers is funding a study of charter schools; or if Eli Broad is supporting a grassroots group advocating for mayoral control.

One problem in the world of education reform is that it seems to be harder and harder to follow the money. Lately, I've noticed a disconcerting trend. Until recently, when visiting the website of an education organization--a charter school, CMO, advocacy organization, research center--I could be reasonably confident I'd see a button inviting me to see "Our Supporters." I haven't analyzed this systematically, but just over the last few months I've had a number of occasions where I've had cause to go looking for that button and found it missing. Needless to say, the one marked "Donate" is still prominently in place.

One thing that got me thinking about this recently was Michelle Rhee's launching of "StudentsFirst." The initial announcement, early last December, proclaimed her goal of raising one billion dollars to build a national movement to support her vision and policy agenda. I rushed right to the site at the time and was disappointed to see that there was no information about who was providing the start-up money. But I was willing to write that off as being a case of my looking too soon, before the campaign had really primed the funding pump. More than seven months later, though, the site is just as impenetrable about its sponsors. The home page gives lots of options for joining: you can be a "Sustaining Member" for $5 per month; by digging a bit deeper you can be a "Contributor" ($250 donation), "Advocate" ($500), "Partner" ($1,000), "Benefactor" ($5,000), or "Champion" ($10,000). You can also opt to settle for being a "General Member," which comes for free. I can find links on the home page to learn about the mission, the policy agenda, and Michelle's bio. But there is no information about who is providing the funding or who is on the governing board (or even if there is a governing board).

StudentsFirst is by no means the only example of funding fog. In my post "What Do Teachers Want?" I referred to some of the new advocacy organizations that offer a vision of what reform-oriented young teachers think about various policy initiatives that the major unions tend to oppose. According to the New York Times, the Gates Foundation spent $78 million on advocacy in 2009, quadruple what it had done just four years previously, and plans to spend over $500 million more on advocacy over the next five or six years. But looking at the web sites of the groups they're supporting doesn't always tell you that they are on the foundation's payroll. Educators4Excellence, one of the two groups I mentioned, does not include information on any of their founders on its website.

There is no good reason for nonprofit groups to fail to be transparent. Some of them are. The Fordham Institute advocates for many of the same issues as these others I've mentioned. But their website prominently links to a list of 35 funders that have supported them from 2007-2011. Maybe we should launch a crusade to encourage other groups--on all sides of the reform issues--to follow suit. Maybe Bill and Melinda Gates will sign on and insist on the same for everyone they fund.

--Jeff Henig

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