influence of think tanks on education policy

Private interests shaping public education: let’s not follow the US example

Private interests are playing an increasingly prominent role in public education. It is a global trend that is already evident in Australia, as we can see from previous posts on this blog.

I believe we can learn a lot from what is happening in American education policymaking. In particular, strategies are evident around efforts by private interests in the US, such as philanthropies, to influence education policy using what we call “idea orchestration” — arranging all the pieces in the policymaking process by aligning the efforts of think tanks and other intermediaries in ways that essentially privatize public policymaking.

Few would argue against a need for substantial reform in American education. There is widespread concern with the country’s performance on international measures as well as with its notable achievement gaps between rich and poor or minority students. While chronic concerns with the education system have sparked generations of education reform, (as I show in a new analysis with Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe in the Australian Educational Researcher) recent policies are driven by private interests and reflect a particular focus on private sector models.

Most notably, these interests are re-shaping education policymaking not through traditional democratic channels, but through business investment-style strategies manifested in education policy as “idea orchestration.”

In some ways, private interests penetrating public policymaking in the US is not new. For generations, the for-profit business sector has advanced its vision of a low-cost system producing employable graduates, while non-profit philanthropies like the Carnegie or Ford Foundations have had their own initiatives in areas such as improving the quality of teaching, or addressing poverty.

The New Edu-Philanthropy

However, the recent wave of what has been called “corporate education reform” features a central role for the private sector that is different in at least three ways.

First, the scale of private resources directed at influencing education policy is unprecedented, as evident by the sheer size of some of the primary movers and shakers. For instance, the Walton family, by far the wealthiest in America, directs a foundation with a primary focus on reforming public education. The Gates Foundation, which combines the wealth of two of the world’s three richest people, has assets of almost $45 billion (USD). Especially in an era of tight budgets and increasing economic inequality, the resources these individuals can dangle in front of policymakers and organizations can be an irresistible enticement for embracing their agendas.

Secondly, the non-profit and for-profit elements of the private sector are in remarkable alignment in terms of their agendas for education. Earlier efforts to reform education often saw philanthropies and businesses taking contrasting, if not conflicting, approaches. For instance, the Henry Ford II famously lamented the perceived anti-capitalist direction of his family’s namesake foundation. Now, all of the “big six” philanthropies active in education reform leverage the wealth accumulated relatively recently by their business-person founders: the Gates fortune from Microsoft, the Walton wealth from the Wal-Mart chain of discount stores (the largest private-sector employer in the US), for instance. Thus, it can be expected that the efforts of the foundations are aligned with, or at least not opposed to, the business interests of the companies that made their founders wealthy.

Third, the business sensibilities these individuals used in amassing their fortunes are being directly applied in how they manage their philanthropic efforts as well as how they expect the recipients of their largess to manage their own efforts. In fact, there is a remarkable confluence of interest and objectives amongst these leading philanthropies in supporting competition among individuals and organizations, with the implications that schools should be run in the same way that these philanthropists have accumulated and managed their own wealth: through business strategies. Hence they are throwing their support largely behind policies that promote consumer choice, competition between schools, and greater autonomy for schools.

Thought Tanks

In contrast to previous generations of private influence on public policy, current patterns of philanthropic activity are different, focusing not only on giving, but on managing and orchestrating efforts. A defining feature of this new business-based education philanthropy is not simply its endorsement of a private-sector model for schools, but a business-style strategy to bring this vision to fruition. Instead of simply throwing money at an issue, funding a study, a project, or an organization, these business-based philanthropists treat their efforts as comprehensive investments. As with the rise of their own business empires, any investment is buttressed with related efforts around policy, politics, and public image. Rather than just channeling funding at a problem, they take care to align adequate political support, have a policy infrastructure in place, and arrange appropriate media and intellectual resources.

In these efforts, so-called “think tanks” play a crucial role in legitimizing and organizing the concerted efforts of like-minded people and organisations. Funded by these philanthropies, think tanks provide the analyses, evidence and intellectual credibility crucial to their funders’ agendas, but at the same time play a critical role in convening key players in public and private sectors, supplying useful data and talking-points to allied media outlets, and identifying and attacking potential opposition.

For instance, the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University receives funding from the Gates, Walton, Koch, and Friedman Foundations, and produces research generally aligned with the agendas of those funders, even when that may conflict with a consensus in the independent research community. PEPG also possesses substantial media acumen, and has been successful in placing its associates in key positions in the public and private sector.

However, rather than simply producing ideas (as their label would suggest), many think tanks — even university-based ones such as PEPG — might be more accurately labeled as “thought tanks” to reflect the fact that their efforts generally revolve around one idea: increasing markets in education. That is, rather than developing and analyzing new policy ideas, the primary contribution of groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the State Policy Network, has been in terms of developing strategies to advance free market, low cost policies, rather than developing additional, much less alternative, policies.

While there may be something laudable about philanthropists wielding their vast fortunes to improve schools, the emerging patterns of how they are doing this may also point to some reasons for concern. Their reliance on business-style strategies to push ideas (or an idea) orchestrated through think tanks highlights the marginalization of democratic channels and the rise of privatized public-policymaking.

from left: Joel Malin, curriculum specialist at the Pathways Resource Center and Chris Lubienski, professor of educationChristopher Lubienski is professor of education policy at the University of Illinois and Sir Walter Murdoch Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University. His research focuses on education policy and reform, with a particular concern for issues of equity and access, and on the political economy of education policymaking. His co-authors on the paper on which this blog entry is based, Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe, are advanced doctoral candidates in education policy at the University of Illinois.

Are think tanks having too much influence on Australian schooling policies?

The past decade has seen think tanks operate in sophisticated ways to influence the development of Australian schooling policies.

Think tanks such as the Grattan Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Whitlam Institute have contributed significantly to policy debates, particularly on ‘bright light’ national reforms such as curriculum, testing and funding. Through generating research papers, opinion pieces, hosting lectures and advising policy makers, thinks tanks have influenced debates, demonstrating an exquisite grasp of political timing and an ability to achieve media impact.

The Grattan Institute has exerted particular skill in this regard, generating widespread media coverage and political impact when its school education program releases new reports. Grattan is also engaged in a wide range of other policy areas, including health, energy, transport and the economy. The Centre for Independent Studies has also developed an influential Education Program, issuing reports in areas including school funding, governance and literacy. It has also gained ‘insider access’ to government processes, with members recently appointed to major government organisations. This includes Steven Schwartz, Senior Fellow at the CIS, who was recently appointed Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which is responsible for developing the Australian Curriculum, the My School website, and national literacy and numeracy tests.

The proliferation of Australian think tanks raises important questions about how these groups impact public policy, and whether their rising influence threatens or strengthens the foundations of democracy in our nation. To conceptualise the rise of think tanks, it is useful to reflect on international trends, particularly in America, where think tanks are more embedded and have gained unprecedented influence over education policy.

The past decade, for example, has seen powerful American think tanks, headed by political elites and backed by significant philanthropic funding, fundamentally re-shape key aspects of schooling. This has raised serious questions about whether elite economic and political actors are ‘working through’ think tanks to undermine democratic processes and the ideals of representative democracy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has channeled vast sums of money into funding think tanks promoting the Common Core Standards (CCSS) initiative, a national set of numeracy and literacy standards adopted by nearly all US states. With the backing of Gates, think thanks such as the Hunt Institute, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, have strategically influenced the reform by producing pro-CCSS materials, building political support, and shaping public debates.

The influence of the Gates Foundation in funding pro-CCSS research and advocacy has been so profound that leading education policy scholars Lorraine McDonnell and Stephen Weatherford suggest the landmark national reform would most likely not have succeeded without money from Gates.

What we have, therefore, is the most significant schooling reform in recent US history being driven not by ‘the American people’, but largely by a powerful philanthropic group that has mobilised a coalition of think tanks and other organisations to influence debates and advocate for the reform. There is a serious risk, therefore, that the CCSS express less the deliberations of a national ‘political public’ and more the vested interests of elites.

The proliferation of Australian think tanks raises important questions about how these groups impact public policy, and whether their rising influence threatens or strengthens the foundations of democracy in our nation.

While the American context might seem like an extreme version of think tank influence, we would be naive to believe Australian think tanks do not have similar vested interests and relationships with donors.

Australian think tanks, for example, are distinctly shady about where donor money comes from, with many outright refusing to publicly disclose information about donors. This includes think tanks on both sides of the political divide, such as the IPA, CIS, Australia Institute, Sydney Institute and McKell Institute.

While there is an argument to be made that donors have the right to remain private, the flipside is that a lack of transparency about where money comes from means potential links between donors and the agendas pursued by think tanks remains murky. This murkiness makes it difficult to distinguish many think tanks from lobby groups, potentially pushing agendas for wealthy donors whose identities are concealed.

As Mike Seccombe argued in a highly critical analysis  of the IPA, the group is tight-lipped about its donors, but we know past donors have included ‘Caltex, Esso, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco’. Rupert Murdoch also served on the IPA Council from 1986 to 2000, and his father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a founding member of the IPA in 1943. The IPA’s donors and connections have raised questions about its preference for certain agendas and not others, including arguments to privatise the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and arguments against ‘nanny state policies’ such as plain cigarette packaging.

The Grattan Institute, on the other hand, does publicly disclose its donors, with the exception of anonymous donations. Current ‘Friends of Grattan’  include Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull, and Labor MP Tim Watts. This policy of disclosure might partly explain why Grattan reports gain such esteem and traction in the media. Transparency helps keeps a check on the politics of influence. Grattan’s success can also be attributed to its ‘centrist’ positioning at a time when the Australian public is increasingly disillusioned with the adversarial politics of the two major parties. Grattan’s centrist politics also means it is well placed to feed the growing appetite amongst public servants to have policies shaped by actors, expertise and ideas external to the traditional confines of the bureaucracy.

We would also be misguided to think powerful philanthropic groups are not gaining influence in Australian policy in ways that are beginning to resemble the American context. The Gates Foundation, for example, already funds Australian research in a range of institutions (mainly in health), and is steadily extending its influence in Australian education policy, funding various policy actors and recent initiatives linked to schooling reforms. It will be interesting to monitor the extent to which the Gates Foundation expands its work in Australian education over the coming years.

The growing influence of think tanks has the potential to deeply transform the foundations of Australian education, particularly in policy development. In the future, it is likely Australia will see more strategic attempts by think tanks to influence public debates and shape reforms.

There is an argument to be made that growing think tank influence represents a greater plurality of voices and the emergence of a stronger civil society. The problem is, in nations like America, rather than greater plurality, we are witnessing a growing convergence of policy ideas and practices proffered by intertwined networks of think tanks, driven by political and economic elites.

It is clear Australia has the potential to move in a similar direction. There is good reason, therefore, to be wary about the trajectory of think tank influence in Australia and to critically question the complex role these organisations play in the democratic process.


SavageDr Glenn C. Savage is a Senior Lecturer in Education Policy in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on education policy, politics and governance at national and global levels, with a specific interest in federalism, intergovernmental relations, and policies relating to curriculum, equity, school funding and standards-based reform. Dr Savage has published widely on these areas, including articles in: Journal of Education Policy; British Journal of Sociology of Education; Critical Studies in Education; Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education; Australian Educational Researcher; Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy; and Journal of Pedagogy. Dr Savage is currently working on three research projects. First is a project commissioned by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, titled ‘Evaluation of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers’. Second is an ‘Early Career Researcher Grant’ funded by the University of Melbourne, for a project titled ‘The national agenda: Exploring the re-scaling of curriculum governance’. Third is a seed-grant project funded by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, titled ‘Imagining Public’ Education: Media, Policy and the Reconstruction of Australian Schooling’.   

This article was first published on the Democracy Renewal  website run by the Melbourne School of Government, and co-published with the Mandarin. 

Glenn’s paper Think Tanks, education and elite policy actors is one of several that will appear in a special issue of the Australian Education Researcher to be published in March 2016. Glenn’s paper and others in the special edition are currently available here.