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What Price Democracy?

A slippery slope: from good-willed private philanthropy in support of public goals to a system in which private goals predominate.

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 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.

I've 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 I 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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COMMENTS

  • Aaron Cavanaugh's avatar

    BY Aaron Cavanaugh

    ON December 21, 2012 08:42 PM

    Hi, Thank you for writing this article. It made me think about a post I made in another article where they were discussing if Capitalism is bad. This is a little off topic but I think it’s relevant.
    I wrote:
    There is nothing wrong with capitalism. The problem is that if government becomes too small (as we are on the verge of in the USA) then societies become corrupt. If you look at GDP by country and looks at tax revenue as a percentage of GDP there is a tipping point where corruption takes off in society as a whole. Government is here to provide safety. If we get rid of it we lose our safety (and soon our democracy as this article refers to it).
    Thanks. God Bless. Aaron

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