Education Opinion

Edbizbuzz-Eduwonk Exchange on Washington’s Like-Minded, Overlapping Education Policy Groups

By Marc Dean Millot — February 15, 2008 24 min read
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As noted elsewhere on the site there’s been a useful discussion on the policy wonk network - in this case the one connecting the likes of Fordham, edsector, AEI and New Schools Venture Fund for a start. I think my exchange with Andy Rotherham on eduwonk.org is worth saving on this blog.
Stop The Presses! These People Know Each Other! And Sometimes They Even -Gasp- Work Together!

It’s the new politburo I tell ya! Eduwonkette has constructed a visual web showing the interlocking relationships between various, mostly centrist, education reform groups. I’d have more confidence in her work if she actually had this right: There are many more relationships here than her chart shows!

I’d also take it more seriously if she took a look at all the similar relationships around, just say, ed school accreditation, teacher certification, NCLB opposition, etc...etc...etc...In other words, yawn...Policy networks are par for the course in this business and a well-researched part of the policymaking process. Understanding and being transparent around them matters, of course, but there is nothing sinister about them.

And, I’d take it still more seriously if we weren’t getting what amounts to faux concern about transparency from an academic who publishes criticism anonymously. Someone remind me again why a lot of people don’t take education seriously?


The tendency to yawn correlates with whether you are in or out of the network/club. Let me use the above comment as an example: “it’s a pretty self-regulating bunch (as they do all know each other and [here’s the part I find incredibly self-serving] - will therefore call each other out on any conflicts of interest).”

Moreover, I know something about these intertwined interests, and have some personal experience with what it means to run afoul of this particular network and its interests. And there are quite a few people in the charter school movement circa 2002-2004 who do as well.

What I find most interesting is that eduwonk pretty much admits that what we have here is an interest group, akin to “all the similar relationships around, just say, ed school accreditation, teacher certification, NCLB opposition, etc...etc...etc...”

I’m fine with that - no problem, and I know that edsector discloses its funders and relationships etc, but it’s also fair to say that the (not think tanks but) policy marketing shops are generally trying to create the impression of disinterested parties purely interested in the public interest.

Moreover, it is at least reasonable for those in academia to apply the this “well-researched part of the policymaking process” to this particular network in the policy setting of public education policy. It seems to me that its academically defensible to ask what role this group plays, their activities, whether they matter or not, and whether they play a positive, negative, neutral or null roll in school reform.

Everyone likes to put the other guy under the microscope. No one likes have the microscope trained on them. Because no one is pure.

I’ve been looking at this from a slightly different angle in www.edbizbuzz,com - first at the so-called think tans, and now at the so-called social entrepreneurs in public education. This is a discussion the open-minded blog reader should encourage.


re Dean Millot’s comment above:

I’m fine with that - no problem, and I know that edsector discloses its funders and relationships etc, but it’s also fair to say that the (not think tanks but)policy marketing shops are generally trying to create the impression of disinterested parties purely interested in the public interest.

What’s the point here? Don’t most people - on all sides of these issues -- do their work because they think it’s ultimately in the public interest one way or another? Put another way, beyond being open about values and disclosing support what else should an organization do here? I’m serious, this is something we strive to do and I’d like to hear ideas beyond what we do now.


Re: “whats the point here - don’t most people do their work because they think it’s ultimately in the public interest one way or another?”

I’m afraid I think that is somewhat naive. Most people who work for a client - in the case of the think tank/policy advocacy shops, their foundation funders - balance what they think to be true with what they understand their funders will support.

I’ve been in all kinds of nonprofits in all kinds of roles, and I’ve never been in one where this wasn’t an issue at some point in some important way.

At RAND I saw the issue from the standpoint of the researcher searching for truth confronted by sponsors who sought to minimize the inconvenient truths.

At NAS I saw it from the standpoint of a research sponsor wanting to give their research grantees a fair shake against a district hoping to blame its problems on designs rather than their support for designs, but still hold design teams accountable for errors, without unreasonably hurting their chances in a new market.

At the National Alliance of Charter Schools, I saw it play out in the struggle between a funder’s ideological preferences regarding the purity of proposed legislation, and the interest of a membership based organization in the ability of its individual state members to deal effectively with their states.

As a consultant I’ve seen it play out between the value-added brought to a research problem by an individual and the effect on research organizations’ funding relationships if that value-added was recognized.

As a grant seeker before the Department of Education, I’ve seen organizations torque themselves to fit the change in administration’s to protect their funding.

I have also worked on several Presidential Commissions and Blue Ribbon Panels outside of education, and I’ve never seen one where the will of commission members did not bend in some way to outside forces.

In the end, most people and organizations in this policy wonk business follow Thucycidides’ aphorism concerning states: “they do what they can and suffer what they must.”

Over the long haul, some people believe or at least reconcile cognitive dissonance by saying that “what they are doing ultimately in the public interest one way or another"; others need the job; others don’t care so much about the product, they just want to get it out. Some people are what Lenin called “useful idiots.” But few are truly independent, and most try to line up with funders who share there views.

Moreover, few making a policy argument, trying to persuade the vast middle, underline that their arguments’ advantage their interests or their clients, or start from the position that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.”

My basic point is made by Kelsey’s posting on edwonkette: “I’m naive enough that I figured research was done by independent scholars. I was sometimes skeptical on scientific grounds, but now I see I should have realized the political power behind these think tanks.”

Eduwonks take the bias in research and “research-assisted advocacy” for granted and mentally discount for it. But most people aren’t eduwonks. Unless someone like eduwonkette raises their consciousness, the good people will take all work at face value - and give a policy paper out of the Center for Education Reform or even AEI the same weight as years of research from RAND or the Urban Institute. It’s even more of a problem now that we have advocacy blogs pretending to be independent, and readily downloadable pdfs pretending to be research.


Hi Dean,

Please excuse the typos or misspellings since this is the comments section and this is stream of conscious on just one cup of java this AM. This is a good discussion and I’m glad Eduwonkette set if off though I wish she just gave readers some broader context rather than affected wonderment about the whole thing, which is preposterous coming from someone in her professional position.

But, I don’t know Dean, maybe I’ve been fortunate, maybe I’m naive, or maybe it’s possible to have standards and still engage in the policy debate. I’ve said no to funding when it didn’t fit the strategic mission at either PPI or ES or would have conflicted with organizational values (in the case of PPI). In the case of ES we have very clear standards for editorial control (we don’t cede it under any circumstance) and the kinds of funding we do, or rather don’t, take. Eg gov’t funding, fee for service contracts, and so forth are all out. In other words, we just don’t take funding that comes with strings. I’m not unique among my peers nor is ES unique among peer organizations in thinking that way. One random thought on that, there is so much funding out there right now on all sides of all these issues that I can’t see why anyone would have to bend to get some. If you do good work there are plenty of avenues to get it funded right now, the stock market hasn’t fallen that much!

I’m not going to start airing dirty laundry here. But to your point about everyone bending one way or another. I’ve been involved in a lot of various things in Washington and in the states, too. I’ve seen that happen AND I’ve seen it resisted. I’ve seen plenty of people inside all sorts of organizations do the right thing or do the wrong thing and I frankly can see no direct correlation to funding, organizational structure, partisanship, ideology, etc…people either act with integrity or they don’t. And when people behave badly it happens for lots of reasons, seeking or keeping various kinds of support, currying favor, insecurity, ideology, lack of understanding of the issues, or they just plain want to keep their job. But that happens inside special interest groups, the teachers’ unions, advocacy orgs, think tanks, academia, government, etc…it’s not exclusive to any group or exclusive of any group. And in that way the education field is no different from any other. Put another way, everyone wants to find some sort of institutional or structural villain here when the villain is human nature.

Doesn’t too much get made of foundation funding and too often it’s just an intellectually lazy way of attacking work. Priors matter and should be disclosed (and though we’re doing better as a field about this over the past few years there is still a long way to go) but need not be determinative. It’s a natural process for interests to gravitate towards one another. For instance I do a lot of work on public charter schools and teacher quality, analytic work, research, commentary work, and policy design. It’s not surprising then that I work with some of the funders in this space who are most interested in those issues. I didn’t start doing that work because of funders, I think those are two very salient issues in educational improvement and there are funders who agree. I also have other preferences around school reform but there isn’t a lot of funding for those out there. It doesn’t mean I change my views, just that I can’t do a lot of work on those issues right now. I use the first person example here because among policy entrepreneurs I’m hardly unusual in approaching the work that way.

The case of Fordham Foundation is especially interesting here, no? They have an endowment (though they also take grants) that presumably would give them more freedom of action right? Yet the CW is that they’re in the “tank”, so to speak. But to whom? If anything to ideology, I guess, but in our system that’s their right and the lively debate is a good one. Or consider Teach For America. They are certainly part of this centrist reformist policy network but did they start placing high caliber teachers in high poverty schools because a funder steered them that way or did they get funding for their idea? Obviously the latter and they have a strategic plan and then fund against it, not the other way around. All I’m saying is that this is a lot more complicated than the general assertion that everyone is beholden in ways that inherently comprise them.

Finally, to the “Kelsy” you cite, he sounds like an idiot. But that’s OK, every village needs some. Does anyone believe that university researchers are like Horace, just out there in the groves of academe seeking truth? Of course not, they get, wait for it… foundation funding, too! And they need various avenues of support, too, inside and outside of their department and university. And they also have priors based on their beliefs, training, alliances, past work etc… And guess what, some of them play fast and loose with the facts, too. For instance, per some previous posts, if he thinks he’s getting straight shooting from Eduwonkette he’s sadly mistaken. Per my last paragraph below, that’s life and people should be intelligent consumers of information from all sources. It’s that critical thinking thing we allegedly used to teach so well in school before NCLB right?

Just to complicate matters, one thing I have to turn to today is finishing a paper that Jane Hannaway (who heads the education operation at Urban Institute) and I are working on together for an academic conference later this month. She and I also have done a book together, funded by Broad and Smith Richardson Foundations and via grants to Urban Institute and PPI. So, per your closing point, if everything you say is true then certainly looking to UI or by extension RAND (since they get funding from some of the same funders who fund this centrist network of reformers) would be a poor proxy for impartiality, too. I don’t believe that those orgs produce bad work, on the contrary. I only raise it to show the fool’s errand that you set people on with this unchecked cynicism. There are more intelligent ways to judge the quality, usefulness, and integrity of work than labels.


Hi Andy.

I think we’ve played this one to as standstill in so far as what we might add for disinterested readers to decide matters for themselves.

I don’t know what to say about our experiences with the rough and tumble at the intersection of research/policy/program and funding. Maybe you are luck,y maybe I am not. Maybe Republicans are meaner or less principled than Democrats. Maybe I read too much into debates, maybe you read too little. I guess readers have to decide for themselves.

I will admit that the deeper one gets into research methodology and analysis, choices of study design given resource constraints, time and the teams’ familiarity and facility with the relevant tools, (and I’ve been in the middle of them in defense and education programs) the more the informed see education researchers as others see economists - line them up end to end, and you’ll never reach a conclusion.

But what differentiates a RAND from an individual researcher, or a typical DC policy (advocacy) shop is the review process and the body of institutional knowledge. In the last two, the individual dominates the quality control process. Put the individual researcher or policy shop head in a RAND research project, and the product is different - more credible. Why? Because RAND’s institutional interests in a long-term reputation for objectivity across all potential research sponsors, and the culture and capacity of many different analysts to check and balance their colleagues, checks that research in ways that simply don’t occur in work-for-hire from a consultant or research from a think tank that’s aligned itself with a particular point of view. No single sponsor is more important to RAND than its reputation. I doubt that is true of any education policy advocacy shop other than Fordham - and that’s the exception that proves the rule because leader Checker Finn has to keep Funder Checker Finn happy.

I guess the objective question for edsector is the balance sheet, cashflow, and operational impact of losing your single or second largest funder. If you can walk away with core activities intact, you are probably objectively independent and whatever bias you have follows purely from ideology and personal relationships. If you look at the loss of that funder and start thinking about what you’d do to keep it them; well, you can’t be a little bit pregnant.

On whether on not Kelsey who wrote in eduwonkette is an idiot, I’m inclined to believe that many, many people who care about education and want to be involved as responsible citizen are fuzzy about the distinction between policy advocate, policy wonk, and researcher. My experience is that these folks are no more likely to question one of these types than they are their lawyer or doctor. I don’t think they are stupid, I think they know they lack the capacity to argue specifics, have little choice but to defer to the experts, and are overly trusting of those who claim that status.


I orgot to ask eduwonk’s eduwonky readers whether they consider this to be a “sellers’” market for research (there is more foundation money looking to sponsor research than researchers seeking sponsors) or a “buyers’ market” (the reverse - more researchers seeking money than funders ready to sponsor it. I’m very curious.


Hi Dean --

I’m not sure debate in the comments section is going to become a regular thing -- I do have a day job, all those funders I have to shill for -- but I wanted to respond to one thing because this is a great conversation going on among different commentors.

You wrote:

On whether on not Kelsey who wrote in eduwonkette is an idiot, I’m inclined to believe that many many people who care about education and want to be involved as responsible citizen are fuzzy about the distinction between policy advocate, policy wonk, and researcher. My experience is that these folks are no less likely to question one of these types that they are their lawyer or doctor. I don’t think they are stupid, I think they know they lack the capacity to argue specifics, have little choice but to defer to the experts, and are overly trusting of those who claim that status.

I believe the same thing in terms of people caring and wanting to know, but I don’t buy the doctor or lawyer analogy. That’s because this sort of information is different, there is more pluralism in provision etc….It’s a good habit to be skeptical of information you consume, whether it comes from RAND or CER or Ed Sector, the New York Times or The National Review. It’s a habit of thinking. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who assume academics should be completely trusted and others not or that anyone should be trusted/not trusted based on labels, you earn that.

Second, the media has big role to play here and often drops the ball. For different reasons they sometimes consume work uncritically or fail to unpack policy relationships etc...

Three links on that issue:

Media and research:

Walton Family Foundation support for charter schools:

NEA support for anti-NCLB efforts:

I don’t envy them (reporters) their job here, it’s challenging, but I think their role is too often unexamined or supported. This is why Richard Colvin’s work at the Hechinger Institute is so important.


I too have a day job that pays the bills. I guess we’ll just have to differ on Kelsey, or better yet, let others take over the discussion.

I agree about reporters’ responsibilities, and I try to spend time helping them understand the broader context within which studies are commissioned and released. On the broader point, see my commentary here.


Despite the nonsense that set it off, this whole policy network question has sparked a fun debate in the comments section of this post, that seems to me well worth reading as it surfaces some interesting issues (though I’m going to have to start charging Dean Millot rent if this keeps up). But, can’t miss that just a week or so ago the bloggy chatter, led by Dean, was about whether think tanks accomplish much of anything at all, now it’s about whether they seemingly wield disproportionate influence? Can both those things be true?


Yes, both not only can be true, they generally are paired up.

It is entirely possible for a group to be irrelevant in the broad policy context, yet control all the relevant resources available for the group’s larger purpose. Even quasi-academics recall Henry Kissinger’s statement about faculty battles being so intense because the stakes are so low.

Almost every movement reaches a point where there are enough resources available to make control of those resources worth fighting over. When that point is reached most movements do have that battle. Ironically, by winning that battle, the victors go a long way to making their movement less relevant. It was true of the anti-war movement, civil rights, and feminism. Why not here?

I think that’s exactly what’s happening here in the slightly right of center of school reform. One faction has won control of the money, presence, relationships etc, and in the process disconnected itself from the grassroots. It’s a kind of anti-blob only smaller and only in control of itself.


Quick reality check, a couple of thoughts, and an apology on a chilly day that sadly finds me working.

Last time I looked about 1.5 billion was spent by education philanthropists each year. So, back of the envelope guess, even adding up all the groups in Eduwonkette’s web and all their support would probably only get you to perhaps 10 percent (and TFA would skew that greatly, absent them it would be a lot less) of that. So I have trouble buying the “shame on foundations” argument. The fact is that most of the money goes elsewhere, the problem is that everyone has a view on where it should go and hardly anyone is ever happy. There is an unmistakable sour grapes feel to some of this.

Second, to revisit something in the original post, policy networks are well documented in the research literature around policy change. What’s also generally accepted is that after you have a policy change you see policy actors both displaced and added to the policymaking agenda. The difference this time is that they have blogs and can grumble about it or conversely exert their voice in ways they couldn’t two decades ago. (This remark is only 1/2 in jest, communications have changed a great deal in terms of how these things are perceived).

Third, the point Dean has raised twice on funding composition (can an org afford to lose a funder) sounds very smart but is just a rhetorical gimmick. Taking my own organization (and this example would apply for many others in this space) yes we could afford to lose one, or several funders, without the sky falling. But at some point losing funders would cause huge problems, we’d have to downsize, find other revenue sources, etc…) In other words, regardless of how you answer that question about one, or several, or many funders there is always a follow-up that brings you to the not surprising bottom line that organizations need funding to operate. And even the mighty revered and lionized RAND faces that, no one is immune.

What I find interesting, however, is that early on in this discussion I posed the question of beyond what Education Sector does now, what else should we do on the transparency/disclosure front. I would humbly suggest that we set the industry standard for that now, but we can always do better so I’d like ideas. A commenter earlier said that people can’t be expected to check Ed Sector’s board of directors when thinking about one of our reports. But that’s the point, the way we operate they don’t have to, we put relevant information like that in the work itself. There are links above describing how we do all that, or just check out a report. That no ideas here are forthcoming is sort of telling. I stand by my earlier characterization of that general argument outside of some basic transparency. It’s lazy, judge ideas. Besides, at the most theoretical level no one and no organization is independent or, alternatively, everyone is. That’s not useful. As it’s used in this conversation and our space, I think the more important definitional question is: What’s the appropriate agency an organization should have in order to be considered “independent?” Embedded in that are questions of voice, freedom of action, institutional positions, funding, membership, audiences, etc…

Finally, at the top level have to point out that this is hardly a new issue. I believe Wendy Kopp’s colleague Madison had something to say about it. In other words, welcome to life in the American political system. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that in all the literature around education on regulatory capture and influence, it’s not this sinister cabal we’re debating here that is cited…or, put another way, go to almost any state capital and have a look around and it’s not the Ed Sector, Achieve, Ed Trust, Teach For America etc…office that you see.

Also, as a PS – I want to apologize to Kelsey, whoever you are. My response above was needlessly harsh about what seems, now that I’ve read it, an honest admission and genuine point and I regret that. But, I do firmly stand by the idea that there is no substitute for informed and skeptical consumption of information. Within reason, the commenter who said “trust no one” nailed it. To assume that there are not agendas everywhere is naïve.


1. Why focus on eduwonkette’s status of anonymity here? Both Alexander Russo and I have written or diagrammed much the same thing, and we are not anonymous. Why don’t the folks who are picking on her explain whose pockets we are in? Or do you prefer picking on girls from your own anonymous positions?

2. On foundation funding, the appropriate baseline is not all funding, but funding controlled by those foundations likely to fund right of center activities. That’s the “addressable market segment” for those who are interested in right of center ideas. Further, you need to take out of that potential amount of money, funds that these foundations devote to activities other than those we’ve been talking about. To be even more precise, you need to look at the amount of money that is available for new funding in a given year. $1.5 billion shrinks down pretty fast.

3. On control and independence, I think we’ve taken this argument to the point where readers have to decide the point at which funders control/influence their fundees.

4. The political science 101 argument is a non sequitor. Perhaps we should move on to a graduate seminar, or just 102. The issue is not whether such networks exist. The issues are first, that this is one, which I think eduwonk has admitted. And second, to understand its effects - not only on the larger federal education policy process (small, I would argue), but within that portion of the political spectrum the network where the network falls (quite large, I think).

5. On what can be done by way of “truth in advertising.” edsector is doing reasonably well here. It would be nice if everyone of these outfits provided clarity in their annual reports about funding sources and purposes and matched them up better on the expense side, identified the relationships of their staff to education and policy institutions.I like the idea of a code of conduct for all these groups - left, right, center.

6. I’d like to see some more dirty laundry aired here. I know of people over several years time who believe they have been pressured by members of this group. Some like Andrew Russo and I have talked about it in our blogs. Others I know have, have not talked. What’s important about this is that it suggests the network isn’t just a bunch of people who enjoy working together, it’s very prickly about threats to its interests. I guess that should not be surprising to students of political science 101 or to consumers of the Education Intelligence Agency’s reports on the union networks.


Irony Is Truly Dead

We’re still getting lectured on transparency from someone with skin in the game who blogs anonymously on a trade newspaper’s website...


1. “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” OR, perhaps, “if you cant win on the facts, argue the conclusions, if you can’t argue either, attack the speaker. This bit about one person’s anonymity is a very thin reed.

2. Who is the “we” that’s getting lectured? It’s entirely possible that this is not a lecture to this particular policy keiretsu (or should I say zaibatsu), but an effort to enlighten the broader readership. If you read how eduwonkette ended her initial post, with as even you noted a fairly incomplete understanding odf the relationships, she was asking what others thought. For this she got hit with a ton of bricks, as if even raising the question was strictly verbotten.

3. A basic rule of thumb in the professional services environment (lawyers, Accountants, architects, etc) is that if any one client counts for more than 20 percent of revenue, the firm is dangerously dependent on that client.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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