School & District Management Opinion

What Happens When Teacher Voices Depend on Foundations’ Choices?

By Anthony Cody — January 22, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

Ten days ago, I shared a guest post authored by Kelly Flynn, Teachers Hold the Key. They Always Have. This morning it received the following comment:

While I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Flynn that teachers need to become more aware and involved in the reform strategies that are shaping our profession, I wonder what the best method for involving teachers should be. I belong to a group called the Denver New Millennium Initiative. We are a varied collection of voices of teachers who have 3-30 years of experience in K-12 schools in the Denver metro area. Though we have many differences in regards to our backgrounds and affiliations, we share a desire to be active members of the educational policy sphere. Where I think I am at odds with Ms. Flynn is that we couldn't do all that we have been able to do without the financial support of various foundations. Does this mean that we are less effective? I certainly hope not. We strive to be an organization that empowers teachers to have a voice in the policy sphere, and we are completely teacher-driven in our goals and efforts. I, too, have fears of corporate powerhouses taking over public education, but I am also grateful to those funders who have provided the means for my peers and I to become powerful voices for our profession here in Denver.

--Jessica Keigan, English Teacher and Member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative

Here are my thoughts in response to this important issue.

Ms. Keigan,
Thanks for your comment. This is a tricky issue. Like you, I have participated in many projects that were funded by foundations. Without non-profit foundation support I would not have had the chance to network with others through the Teacher Leaders Network. The whole National Board project would not have happened without foundation support, and that was hugely helpful to me as well. Even Education Week, which publishes this blog and many others, would not exist without ongoing support from foundations. I am grateful for this support. I am also aware of the work the New Millennium Initiative has done, and even participated in the early stages of some of that work with the San Francisco Bay Area project.

But foundation support has, it seems to me, become more agenda-driven than in the past. And sometimes that agenda may have an influence on the direction teacher advocacy projects take.

What is the emphasis of projects that receive funding?
The organizations that apply for grant funding must anticipate what the foundations want to support, and tailor their proposals accordingly. This means that even though teachers that are recruited to participate may have a voice in the work that is done, the template has been laid down even before the work has begun.

You may find that there are certain things that “the funder wants” that must appear in your final product. That has been my experience. For example, I worked on a report on teacher compensation several years ago, and while within the pages of the report we were allowed to be critical of the use of test scores for teacher pay, it was made clear to us during the editing process that our final report had to allow for test scores to have some role.

This is not a black or white issue. There are some foundations that are much more aligned in their outlook with teachers than others, and thus give projects much greater latitude. There are others who have decided to focus their philanthropy on a particular agenda, a particular set of policy goals. In this regard, the Gates Foundation stands out, both because of the magnitude of their role, and the clear agenda that has emerged from most of the projects they have been supporting. I think it is important for teachers to look closely at the stated goals of the projects they participate in, and be alert for hidden agendas as well. For example, I do not think students and teachers in Indiana were well served by legislation that was passed with the help of the Gates-funded group Teach Plus, as I wrote here.

I think Kelly Flynn’s post is a reaction to this sort of manipulation of teacher voice, and a call for teachers to develop our own voices in ways that do not depend on foundation support. I think this is very important because clearly, if teachers depend on these foundations to have a voice, then we are subject to their control.

More than two years ago, many of us were intensely dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s education policies, especially the squandering of billions of dollars on the Race to the Top. Would any foundation at that time have funded outspoken advocacy against these policies? I didn’t think so, and did not even try for funding. Instead, I launched the group Teachers’ Letters to Obama, which I think was effective because of our ability to speak truth to power - and it cost us next to nothing. Would any foundation have supported a teacher and parent-led grassroots protest at the White House, such as the Save Our Schools March? I doubt it. There are real limits to the kinds of advocacy that foundations are willing to fund.

I do not think we need to reject foundation support on principle, but we need to make sure we are not being used to advance an agenda that is not in the interest of our students or our profession, and we need to develop our independent capacity to speak out and be effective advocates without utter reliance on foundation support. At a time when public education faces unprecedented dangers, teachers need to be able to stand on our own two feet, and do what it takes to be heard.

What do you think of the role of foundations in teacher leadership? How should teachers relate to leadership opportunities funded by various foundations?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.