Sponsors of Policy: A Network Analysis of Wealthy Elites, their Affiliated Philanthropies, and Charter School Reform in Washington State
by Wayne Au & Joseph J. Ferrare — 2014
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, today’s plutocrats are not like you and I; nor do they resemble the politicians we elect. Even when they assume the authority to set public policies, they are, I fear, not sackable. (Bosworth, 2011, p. 386)
Background/Context: Charter school policy has evolved into a major component of the current education reform movement in the United States. As of 2012, all but nine U.S. states allowed charter schools, and in one of those nine, Washington State, charter school legislation was passed by popular vote in November 2012. There is a substantial, if contested, research base focusing on charter school effectiveness, particularly related to test score achievement, as well as an equally contested literature base on charter school enrollment selectivity, student expulsions, and increased segregation in charter school populations.
Purpose: The purpose of this study is to analyze the network of relations of policy actors surrounding the statewide campaign to pass the charter school Initiative 1240 in Washington State in order to better understand how wealthy individuals and their associated philanthropic organizations influence educational policy.
Research Design: Making use of available tax records, public election information, individual and organizational websites, and institutional and foundation databases, this study uses simple directed graphing techniques from social network analysis to analyze the complex relationships and affiliations of policy actors relative to the campaign to pass charter school Initiative 1240 in the state of Washington.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This study concludes that, compared to the average voter in Washington, an elite group of wealthy individuals, either directly through individual donations or indirectly through their affiliated philanthropic organizations, wielded disproportionate influence over the outcome of the charter school initiative in the state, thereby raising serious concerns about the democratic underpinnings of an education policy that impacts all of the children in Washington State. This study also concludes that elite individuals make use of local nonprofit organizations as a mechanism to advance their education policy agenda by funding those nonprofits through the philanthropic organizations affiliated with those same wealthy elites. In light of these conclusions, the authors recommend that a mechanism for more democratic accountability be developed relative to education policy campaigns, initiatives, and legislation.