What Price Democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to the Nonprofiteer’s mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.

The Nonprofiteer has often argued that private philanthropy in education (and other areas) is at best a mixed blessing, because it reflects approval of the notion that public assets should be run according to private preferences.   But she never imagined any philanthropy would go this far, offering its generosity only on condition that the public sacrifice its right to choose its own leaders. The question isn’t whether or not Chris Christie is a good governor; the question is whether the Broad Foundation—as opposed to the voters of New Jersey—should get to decide that.

Sure, you can say that no voter is likely to sacrifice his or her rights for a grant of $430,000, but then we’re just arguing about the price. And sure, in form, the voters of New Jersey still hold the power, but the Broad Foundation grant gives them to understand that the cost of exercising their power is losing a lot of money—or, put another way, that the cost of the money is their democratic rights. By comparison, “the vig” (excessive interest rates) charged by organized crime look like a bargain.

Not content with specifying the outcome of an election, the grant’s terms also exempt from disclosure anything having to do with the grant, purporting to provide it with immunity from application of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps this was intended to minimize the impact of the grant on voters: What they don’t know can’t influence them. But when the subject of the grant is the most public of concerns—the education of the next generation—a commendable motive doesn’t excuse unacceptable means. Voters need to know on what basis decisions are being made about their schools so that they can change the decision-makers if they disagree. The grant terms are an effort to protect the foundation and its direct beneficiary, the current Republican government of New Jersey, from that straightforward democratic notion.

Defenders of charter schools and other forms of privatization of public schools argue that such restructuring attracts private philanthropy that would not otherwise be available to those schools. That’s probably true, but is that a cost or a benefit? It’s a slippery slope, from good-willed private philanthropy in support of public goals to a system in which private goals predominate—specifically the private goal of eliminating public input (or even public knowledge) from the governance of the public schools.

We could argue about whether the loss of public input would be worth it if the donation were $430 million. But under the current circumstances, just what kind of girl is New Jersey?

A cheap date, apparently.


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3 Responses to “What Price Democracy?”

  1. mitchhellman Says:

    I haven’t thought through the ramifications of the offer made by the Broad Foundation, but at first blush it reminds me of John Schnatter (a.k.a. “Papa John) and his threat to lay off employees/ cut employee hours/raise the price of his products because of what he views as the exorbitant cost of implementing the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”). Schnatter is practicing what I would call ‘reverse philanthropy’– but the end result is the same as with the Broad Foundation, i.e. there are strings attached. Schnatter is somewhat more upfront about taking his ball and going home if he doesn’t get what he wants, but carrot or stick amounts to the same thing.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Absolutely! And the bottom line in both cases is that government is somehow illegitimate, so that self-help (or private help) is necessary to secure the common good. I wonder how much of that flows, in turn, from the Birthers and the rest of those who simply can’t accept that a black man is President.

  2. CBlack Says:

    At Nonprofit Quarterly, Rich Cohen points out that the Broad Foundation was one of several (the Wal-Mart family’s foundation was another) that predicated a $64.5 million grant to DC schools on maintaining Michelle Rhee as chancellor. This was in 2010, when Mayor Adrian Fenty was staking much of his campaign on Rhee’s claims about improving schools (since called into question by a huge test-score-changing scandal). Rhee resigned when Fenty was defeated; she has since served as an adviser to Christie and other Republican governors.


    These are extreme cases of an increasingly common practice – foundations using their charity to dictate policy. In Chicago, CPS has signed the Gates Compact, promising to double the number of charter schools and ramp up taxpayer support for them. In return, CPS gets the right to compete for grant money that would cover a small portion of the costs of those commitments. In this month’s round, Gates turned down CPS’s proposal.

    Opera fan Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, is right when she points out that when philanthropists give money to the opera, they don’t assume the right to get on stage and tell the singers how to sing. Yes, foundations want accountability and effectiveness, but the approach they are taking to school reform is manipulative and undemocratic.

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