Your serious reading assignment for the day comes from the quarterly Dissent, “Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy>”

It’s a story as old as the Rockefellers and Carnegies. It’s about how vast wealth has been put to work — with significant tax advantages amounting to public subsidies — to affect social policy, including through political action. The article argues that the plutocrats are more powerful today because of concentration of wealth and dwindling public resources, along with the popular push for privatization.


Yes, the Billionaire Boys Club push to spend their huge wealth to influence public education — the so-called reform movement — is prominently featured.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have taken the lead, but other mega-foundations have joined in to underwrite the self-proclaimed “education reform movement.” Some of them are the Laura and John Arnold, Anschutz, Annie E. Casey, Michael and Susan Dell, William and Flora Hewlett, and Joyce foundations.

Each year big philanthropy channels about $1 billion to “ed reform.” This might look like a drop in the bucket compared to the $525 billion or so that taxpayers spend on K–12 education annually. But discretionary spending—spending beyond what covers ordinary running costs—is where policy is shaped and changed. The mega-foundations use their grants as leverage: they give money to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations’ pet policies. Resource-starved states and school districts feel compelled to say yes to millions of dollars even when many strings are attached or they consider the policies unwise. They are often in desperate straits.

Most critiques of big philanthropy’s current role in public education focus on the poor quality of the reforms and their negative effects on schooling—on who controls schools, how classroom time is spent, how learning is measured, and how teachers and principals are evaluated. The harsh criticism is justified. But to examine the effect of big philanthropy’s ed-reform work on democracy and civil society requires a different focus. Have the voices of “stakeholders”—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened? Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased? Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled? Are politicians more or less responsive to them? Is the press more or less free to inform them? According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.

Particularly interesting is the article’s focus on “astrotrufing.” This is the use of big money to create nominally grassroots movements. The Waltons are doing a lot of this in Arkansas now, with Walton-financed front groups and paid political consultants busily building brush fires to, among others, create charter schools, sometimes of the white flight variety, aimed at damaging public school districts. Multiple Walton-funded enterprises are working in Little Rock currently. These groups have also influenced state legislation.


Well-financed astroturfing suffocates authentic grassroots activity by defining an issue and occupying the space for organizing. In addition, when astroturfers confront grassroots opposition, the astroturfers have an overwhelming advantage because of their resources. Sometimes, however, a backlash flares up when community members realize that paid outsiders are behind a supposedly local campaign.

The article calls for reform of law covering foundations. Increase taxes, for example. Require more spenddown of assets. The foundations will oppose this, of course. Public information would help, but the writer comments:

The mainstream media are, for the most part, failing miserably in their watchdog duties. They give big philanthropy excessive deference and little scrutiny.

That has been the case in Arkansas, where the biggest media organization, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is owned by Walter Hussman, an ally of the “reformers.”  He has a foundation, too.