September 2, 2012; Source: BBC

While everyone is focusing on the specter of voter fraud—a solution in search of a problem, or perhaps more accurately, a solution to one “problem” heralded as a response to another—we may perhaps be allowing a far more serious threat to U.S. democracy to proceed apace. Shanaz Musafer, a business reporter for BBC News, once again draws our attention to the “power of policy-making in the hands of philanthropists.” Most of his examples are of U.S. billionaires, though some function on the global stage.

Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, comments that even at the global level, in setting priorities for the health field, the Gates Foundation has driven many other players away. “The good news is there’s this phenomenal amount of money out there that wasn’t there before, and it is extremely well-intentioned money. There is no hidden agenda,” Garrett says. But the Gates agenda and its money have the tendency to drown out others.

“The thing is, Gates just so dwarfs everything else, it looks like everything else is being ignored,” observes Garrett. “So many NGOs are dependent on Gates money. So if the focus of the moment is rolling out anti-retrovirals [used to treat HIV] then everything starts to follow that money—university research, NGOs and other foundations. There is a pile-on. So I see it as a far more complex problem than it might have looked.”

In the U.S, where there has been a lot of piling on of billionaire philanthropy in education with questionable results, Diane Ravitch, an education historian, feels it is “troubling” that the Gates, Broad and Walton Family foundations, which are all large education funders, have similar agendas because the combination of them can crowd out other voices and the truth about outcomes.

“They all support an agenda that is remarkably similar: privately managed charter schools; high-stakes testing; evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students; top-down, centralised decision-making by the federal government, the state government or the mayor; disregard for teacher experience or credentials or degrees,” says Ravitch. “…In the past, our great philanthropies carried out demonstration projects in [the] hope of swaying government policy. Now government policy and foundation policy are intertwined, without any evidence to support its efficacy.”

The Walton Family Foundation does not agree, according to Daphne Moore, the foundation’s communications director: “We invest in organisations that empower parents. When parents are empowered with choices in their child’s education, a competitive dynamic emerges that inspires the broader public school system to improve…Every student should have access to a school that meets their individual needs. That is why the foundation invests in creating quality education opportunities regardless of school type—traditional district schools, private schools or public charter schools.”

NPQ has written about this issue repeatedly over the past few years but as public systems become more resource-starved and a greater than ever amount of the country’s wealth is concentrated among the very rich, the question of who sets public system priorities is of growing concern. We’d love to hear from readers with any personal experience of this dynamic. –Ruth McCambridge