Sarah Reckhow is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University. She is also affiliated with the Education Policy Center at Michigan State and with the Global Urban Studies Program. Her award-winning book with Oxford University Press, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, examines the role of major foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, in urban school reform. She has recently published articles in Educational Researcher, Journal of Urban Affairs, Urban Affairs Review, Policy Studies Journal, and Planning Theory. She received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2009. Sarah was a high school teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools.
State and Local Politics
Recent election cycles have seen growing attention to the role of “outside” money in urban school board elections. Using an original data set of more than 16,000 contributions covering election cycles from 2008 to 2013 in four school districts (Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; Denver, CO; Bridgeport, CT), we show how large national donors play a significant role. Our study links two dynamic fields that are rarely studied together: (1) the behavior of wealthy donors in a changing national campaign finance system and (2) the evolving politics of urban education. By examining donor networks, we illuminate the mechanisms behind the nationalization of education politics and national donor involvement in local campaigns. We show that shared affiliations through education organizations are significantly associated with school board campaign contributions.
Based on recent developments in education policy, I show that foundations have stepped well beyond the role of interest group patrons. Foundations have engaged in policy advocacy around a shared agenda supporting Common Core, teacher evaluation reforms, and charter schools. Using an original dataset of philanthropic grants combined with analysis of congressional hearings, I show how major foundations support aligned objectives to reform education. I also examine philanthropic involvement in partnerships with the federal Department of Education in support of federal policy initiatives. The alignment of private philanthropic advocacy efforts with leadership from the federal Department of Education produced rapid changes in state adoption of Common Core standards and teacher evaluation. Yet I also find that there have been costs to this more expansive role for philanthropy. The longevity of policy changes supported by major philanthropies may be challenged by the consequences of pursuing change via elite consensus and unelected leadership.
Philanthropic involvement in education politics has become bolder and more visible. Have foundations changed funding strategies to enhance their political influence? Using data from 2000, 2005, and 2010, we investigate giving patterns among the 15 largest education foundations. Our analyses show growing support for national-level advocacy organizations. Furthermore, we find that foundations increasingly fund organizations that operate as “jurisdictional challengers” by competing with traditional public sector institutions. We apply social network analysis to demonstrate the growing prevalence of convergent grant-making—multiple foundations supporting the same organizations. These results suggest that a sector once criticized for not leveraging its investments now increasingly seeks to maximize its impact by supporting alternative providers, investing concurrently, and supporting grantees to engage in policy debates.
Studies of minority political incorporation have demonstrated that advocacy organizations are critical for advancing minority electoral success and policy change. Drawing on an original data set of 30 midsized U.S. cities, the author evaluates the extent of organized representation of racial and ethnic groups and the effect of organized representation on elected representation. Latinos and Asian-Americans both have greater numbers of local advocacy organizations as the groups’ proportion of the population increases. Yet many cities with sizable African-American populations have a lower density of advocacy organizations than cities with fewer African-Americans. A smaller field of organizations increases elected representation for African-Americans but not for Latinos.