Two recent stories raise the question, Who determines the public good–or, even more broadly, Who is the public? The first tale, from the June 28 New York Times, described the purging of a charter school’s Board of Directors by its major donors, so they could replace parent, teacher and community representatives with a more monied group and alter the school’s educational approach. (Charter schools, though public, are governed by Boards of Directors like any other nonprofit.)
The second story concerned a preexisting nonprofit whose Board (in return for substantial government money) accepted a revision to its bylaws granting a permanent majority to government representatives. Because it’s not technically a public agency, though, it’s free of the strictures of the Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the countless other ways we Americans have devised to keep an eye on the foxes who guard our political henhouse.
If these two examples are a sign of the long-heralded convergence among the sectors–nonprofits becoming profitmakers, private nonprofits forming partnerships with the public sector–they demonstrate that convergence is not, in fact, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
On the face of it, there’s nothing shocking about the idea that s/he who has the gold makes the rules, regardless of whether the gold-haver is a major private donor or a governmental body. But when the institution being ruled is discharging a public obligation (like public education), shouldn’t there be some limit on the power of private money? Charter schools were supposed to supplement public schools, not replace them; but if teachers, parents and community members are excluded from their Boards, then nothing distinguishes charter schools from plain old private schools–and we haven’t privatized primary or secondary education. Or maybe we have, and it just hasn’t been announced.
Conversely, when the institution being ruled is organized as an independent nonprofit, shouldn’t there be some limit on the power of public money? If municipalities, states, counties, park districts, sewer districts and port authorities dominate the nonprofits they fund, it’s reasonable to ask why those agencies shouldn’t be treated as arms of the government, and therefore subject to civil service rules, or the obligation to hold public hearings. As the Nonprofiteer’s informant said, "We’re supposed to be the third sector–not the second and a half."
(What do governments gain by capturing nonprofits, or by delegating major tasks to them? Nonprofits can speed government purchases by assuming liabilities that would otherwise accompany them, such as the burden of cleaning up property laced with asbestos. Captive nonprofits can create the false impression of an autonomous groundswell in support of governmental policies. Troublesome nonprofits–that is, advocacy groups–can be silenced by the judicious application of public money. Most of all, nonprofits can take the blame for failure, so elected officials don’t have to. If the New York charter school doesn’t straighten up and fly right, that’s not Michael Bloomberg’s fault–it’s the fault of the donors, or the parents, or the community representatives; that is, the nonprofit Board.)
The Nonprofiteer has no answers to provide; she merely notes that these stories illustrate the darker side of public-private partnerships, so often hailed as the solution to anything not curable by whiskey in hot milk. It’s important for society to know the difference between things determined by voters and things determined by donors–that is, between things everyone owns and things whose ownership is properly a privilege of wealth.