How did vouchers and charter schools become key elements in the education reform agenda in the United States?

My guest today, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Illinois, Chris Lubienski, speaks about the rise of policy orchestration among a network of private and non-profit actors and what this means for democratic decision making.

His research shows how Philanthropic Foundations, such as the Gates and Walton Family Foundations, and think tanks, such as the Brookings Institute and RAND corporation, have come to promote a common agenda that has helped propel vouchers and charters into the national spotlight.

Professor Lubienski explores the changing structures of educational policy making in the United States, and argues that the contracting out of policy making to actors such as Gates, Brookings, and RAND has resulted in the privatization of public policy making.

You can follow Prof. Lubienski on twitter: @Club_edu and read his article on policy orchestration.

Citation: Lubienski, Chris, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 2, podcast audio, July 20, 2016.

Transcript, Translation, Resources:


Will Brehm:  0:42
Professor Lubienski, welcome to Fresh Ed.

Chris Lubienski:  0:45
Thank you.

Will Brehm:  0:46
Before we discuss your forthcoming journal article entitled ‘Orchestrating Policy Ideas: Philanthropies and Think Tanks in US Education Policy’, which will appear in the Australian Educational Researcher. Could you please explain how you became interested in the subject of educational privatization?

Chris Lubienski:  1:06
That’s a great question. I was doing my doctoral studies at a time then that policymakers I think were first really accelerating the move towards markets in education in the US, but also in other countries in Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, and I’ve been quite interested in that topic in and of itself, how our school’s operating and responding in more marketized environments that have been created by those policies. But at the same time, I’ve been quite interested in what does this mean for policymaking itself? Or what are the drivers for that agenda in policymaking and what are the implications for democracy? So more recently, I’ve been working with some colleagues on a project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation which is looking at how intermediary organizations are promoting those types of policies and this is with Janelle Scott at Berkeley and Liz DeBray at University of Georgia, and we’ve been looking at this in a number of US cities, and looking at the specific organizations that are promoting these types of policies, what we call incentives as policies, and you see a lot of the familiar names would appear, major philanthropies and think tanks would keep appearing as affiliates with a lot of these new types of organizations that are popping up at the local and national levels. So that’s basically in a nutshell how I developed this interest. And I would say that I’m also working with some other colleagues and extending this to then to global level as well. It’s not just a US phenomenon by any means. So, we’ve been starting to track these issues across countries as well. So, I think that’s the main issues, the heart of it is we wanted to examine how these philanthropies and think tanks were facilitating idea transfers through these policy networks, both the local and the national and international levels.

Will Brehm:  3:24
Right. And in this particular article, which you write with T. Jameson Brewer, and Priya Goel La Londe, you talk about how lots of education policymaking in the US has been in a sense outsourced to public and private actors of different sorts. And now this group of actors is quote unquote orchestrating policy. And so perhaps as a way to begin the discussion about this article, perhaps you could describe the group Parent Revolution, which came up a few times in the article.

Chris Lubienski:  4:07
Parent Revolution is one of the two cases that we use to go straight these processes. Parent Revolution is an organization that’s founded by a former Clinton aide named Ben Austin, and it focuses on a policy called parent trigger, where parents at a school have the ability to petition or vote to change the basic structures of the school. This could mean different things in terms of firing the staff or restructuring, firing the leadership, and it’s been taken up in different states with somewhat some variations on that basic set of policy interventions. But one common factor across all them is that the school can be restructured as a charter school and so Parent Revolution is an organization that does have some connections to the charter school management world. And so, you’ll get charter school change that see this as a device or an opportunity for them to, in a sense, take over a school. So, Parent Revolution itself has got funding from some of the philanthropies that I’m sure we’ll discuss more here today. But yet they have political connections and started in California. And since then they’ve expanded and promoted this legislation at another states as well.

Will Brehm:  5:43
And in the article, you described them as a, quote unquote, grass tops organization rather than a grassroots organization. Can you explain the difference please?

Chris Lubienski:  5:54
Right. Grassroots is obviously kind of an appealing image. And a lot of organizations like to present that kind of that face where they’re responding to demands from the community, for example. So, there is that kind of incentive to create that image.  Grasstops is a variation on that, where the impetus is actually not coming from the community, but from above. And so, the focus is more on the top, and then they’re trying to create the image of roots underneath that. And so, Parent Revolution exemplifies that to some extent, because they do get a lot of funding from these philanthropies. And they’ll use that funding, for example, to hire private firms to go out and collect petitions or signatures from parents to try and pull that trigger in schools. So, they can say that they do have the support of the community. But subsequent research is shown that they’re often, they approach parents and they don’t particularly inform them about the issues and the parents’ prerogatives in this respect. So, what happened is a lot of parents are signing something that they later have suggested, they really weren’t aware of the implications of what they were doing, and often regretted the outcomes of those things. So yeah, it suggests that what we have is these organizations that are trying to create this appearance in order I wouldn’t say manipulate but they’re definitely taken advantage of, or trying to capitalize on communities, sensibilities on these issues, but the drivers really from above and not from below.

Will Brehm:  7:41
And some of the actors from above or think tanks. And I found it amazing that you cite a study that identified over 6000 think tanks across the US in different sectors. So, in education policy, which are the main think tanks involved?

Chris Lubienski:  8:04
Actually, the number you’re giving, the 6000 is global. Right, right in the US I think was more like 1800. So, it’s still a substantial chunk of the global think tank sector resides in the US and a big chunk of that is in Washington, though not by any means completely. So, in the US on a national level, you’ll see some major players and they tend to be more on the kind of the conservative end of things and also in favor of corporate education reform. So, groups like American Enterprise Institute or AEI, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Foundation, Cato Institute is more libertarian, the Brookings Institute is considered more mainstream centrist. But on some of these issues, they do tend to focus more on the corporate education reform agenda. And then there’s some newer groups like Education Sector, which pretty much emulate the other think tanks and a lot of their behaviors. The Fordham Foundation is a similar one. And I think on the left, you might point to Economic Policy Institute or EPI is a union funded group that also has some interest in these issues, but from a very different perspective. So that’s at the national level. But there’s also a lot of these activities happening in state capitals as well. So, if you want, we could talk about that.

Will Brehm:  9:33
Yeah, sure. I mean, I think that’s actually at least to me, some of the most interesting pieces of information that you write about is these local networks of think tanks that are, you know, very politically engaged at higher levels, but then working through groups like Parent Revolution.

Chris Lubienski:  9:55
Right. And there’s reasons for that. I mean, I think a lot of this happens at the national level because, you know, they want to affect federal policy. Alternatively, there’s a lot of opposition at the federal level as well, where we’ve seen a process, what you might call disintermediation, where a lot of this organization can happen at the state level where state policymakers are more in need of evidence in the census is ammunition for making policy claims. And there’s not as much organized response at the state level where a lot of education policy making takes place in state capitals. So there’s groups like you might be familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council which is a national level group but their focuses on state level actors, so ALEC is called, and their main efforts are advocating state level policymakers at the table literally with corporate interests, who would be funding their efforts but also have a particular agenda they want to sell to those state level policymakers. And ALEC is interesting because they will actually write legislation on different issues such as charter schools for example, or parent trigger and state lawmakers can then take those templates and just fill in the name of their states and submit that as legislative proposals. So, in a sense it prioritizes or contracts out that policy making effort and then there’s another umbrella group called the State Policy Network, which is a network of state level think tanks and all the states are represented. And these tend to be more market based or market-oriented organizations.

And so, examples of that would be the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan or the Illinois Policy Institute. And these are groups that also promote these incentivized types of policy proposals. Those would be things like charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, parent trigger, that type of thing. And what they do is they try and promote these through interactions with lawmakers, but also in terms of providing the evidence of their effectiveness or also working with the media to try and you know, create a public impression about the need for these types of reforms and their advocacy. So they’ve been, I would say, pretty successful but they do represent kind of a contracting out of policymaking and so instead of our public elected policy makers that are, you know, making these decisions in these proposals, in a sense they’re looking to these private, somewhat secretive organizations to get those policy proposals and also evidence of their effectiveness and the evidence is in questionable You know, we’ve done some analysis of the people that work at these organizations. I have done this with Joel Malin and we’re finding that they have a lot of expertise in terms of media acumen, but not necessarily in terms of research. So their trainings is not in terms of understanding whether or not these are effective proposals, but they’re more sales people than scholars and that’s what these think tanks really you can use, you know, they’re much less interested in writing another peer reviewed journal article, much more interested in having a public policy impact. And they’ve been, I think, pretty successful at that.

Will Brehm:  13:47
I mean, it’s an incredible story and in the article, you cite the Race to the Top, which is, you know, associated with President Obama has been, as an example of what you call disintermediation. Could you just describe how this is an example of disintermediation and why you find it somewhat problematic?

Chris Lubienski:  14:17
Let me say, I think that Race to the Top was an absolutely brilliant political move on the part of the Obama administration, they use economic crisis and the response to that, and instead of mandating states do certain things, they instead highly incentivized them in terms of, in order to compete for some federal funding, substantial federal funding at a time when states are really cash starved. They required that states make changes if they wanted to be eligible for this competition. So, a lot of states did these things. But, you know, the argument could be made that they did them of their own volition that, you know, they weren’t forced to do it. So, in that regard, I think it’s a brilliant political strategy, but it’s not necessarily research based. So, there’s elements of Race to the Top some of the things that the Duncan administration of the Department of Education and Washington, some of the things that they were requiring that have more of a political agenda and aren’t really backed up by research. So, we could talk about those. But I think what’s interesting here is, in your question, points more to what are the structural implications for this. And this is what we’ve been describing this disintermediation where you have kind of a hollowing out of the middle level in the structures, democratic structures that were put in place in order to, you know, reflect the will of the electorate are being bypassed to some extent. So you have a more central national player, in this case, the Department of Education, but also this was really facilitated by the Gates Foundation, and then at the same time, they’re bypassing more of the state and the state structures and going right to district and school levels and requiring some of these changes be implemented. But yeah, I think that you could really see the fingerprints of the Gates Foundation on this, but even more so on the Common Core Initiative that we’ve been seeing recently. And this is examples of where they’re just bypassing that middle level.

Will Brehm:  16:35
And let’s talk a little bit about the Gates Foundation, because this is one example of venture philanthropy, which is another major player in this policy orchestration that you describe. So, you know, what is venture philanthropy? And how is it connected to these think tanks that we just talked about?

Chris Lubienski:  17:01
That’s a great question. And venture philanthropy, I think the term is meant to make some parallels with the venture capitalism that we’re seeing, you know, specially at the Silicon Valley where you have major players that are looking at projects with a lot of potential and they want to invest in those to make changes. So, I’m not impugning the motivations of these people, I think they, you know, often their hearts are in the right place, they want to make changes, and they want to make things better, especially for disadvantaged kid. But their approach to doing this and their management style really reflects more of that corporate approach. It is quite distinct from earlier forms of philanthropy. If you look at some of the previous examples of philanthropy, and education policy, you know, famous names such as Carnegie or the Annenberg Challenge, the Ford Foundation. And there what you typically see was these wealthy individuals and families giving out of a sense of social obligation, and they would direct their giving towards certain areas where they thought there was a major need, but there wasn’t directly management of that gift to the extent that we’re seeing now. It was often a gift. And the assumption was that the nonprofit sector would then be able to use those resources for the better. What we’re seeing now is, another term is effective philanthropy where we’re seeing philanthropists who are doing this in a very much of an investor style, they’re looking for areas where they can have impact, and they want to maintain much more direct control over the gifts. So, they’re, in a sense, not giving up the steering wheel. And they also are very interested in metrics. They want to see how their dollars are having impact, which is, you know, a perfectly reasonable thing, but it’s changing the nature of giving as well, where they’re seeing this much more in terms of a corporate approach, which makes sense, because, you know, a lot of these people come out of the corporate world, you know, Bill Gates made their money in a particular way. And what they’re trying to do is take that model and apply that to the nonprofit sector or to a government sector where things are quite different by the way. So, it’s changing the nature of the sector to which is the recipient of these funds.

Will Brehm:  19:25
And so this network that then gets created between these new class of philanthropists and these think tanks that are operating at national levels and global levels, but all the way down into the local grassroots or grass tops levels, what sort of policies are they then promoting? Let’s dig into that a little bit. So, after all these different actors that are being connected together in this new network of policy orchestration, what are these policies that are coming up?

Chris Lubienski:  20:04
And there are a number of areas and certainly the Gates Foundation, you know, obviously, they’ve been doing work in global health, for example, you know, that’s great, but I’m not an expert on that. And then I can’t weigh in on that. But a number of these major players here have been focusing on what we’re calling incentives as policies, the ones I mentioned previously, where they really try to use market style incentives for individuals and organizations, groups that are often in the nonprofit or the government sector and have been traditionally shielded from those types of incentives. But these philanthropies see those incentives are incentivizing these individuals, organizations is the key to getting more effective behaviors, and effective and better outcomes from them. So as I mentioned, these are things such as charter schools, voucher programs, merit pay for teachers, this often implies then you’re going to have metrics available. So, for example, Race to the Top was really promoting ways of measuring the value added of teachers. And I think what’s most important here to point out is that the remarkable confluence of interests and agendas of the major players here. So, you know, some of the big ones would be groups like the Gates Foundation, but also the Walton Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation. So here you have the wealthiest individual and also the wealthiest family in the US that are promoting this, but also groups like the Broad Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, Fisher Foundation. So, what’s interesting here is that we suddenly have this inundation of funding of private funding, and they all tend to promote the same types of reform policies. There are some variations in there, for example, the Walton Foundation’s much more interested in voucher programs than say, the Gates Foundation, but they both agree about charter schools. And so, a lot of them are pouring, you know, quite a substantial amount of money into charter schools. And in fact, I think the Walton Foundation is funded a large proportion of charter schools in the United States. But then they also have groups like the Broad Foundation that are supporting policymakers that promote these types of policy proposals. And they’re actually in many cases training the next generation of leaders to promote these types of things.

Will Brehm:  22:37
And your history in educational privatization, you said earlier, you are concerned with democracy in education, and how that was changing with the rise of privatization that you saw during your doctoral studies. And, you know, now that you’ve done all this research, written books and many articles, and look at these incentives, policies that are coming out across many think tanks and philanthropies like you said, there’s a common agenda that’s forming, how does that impact democracy in your opinion?

Chris Lubienski:  23:20
That’s a great question. And let me take a step back and say, you know, after, you know, 25 years now of these types of policies promoted in schools, there’s still not a lot of compelling evidence that they work. You know, there’s still debates, but I think most people would agree that if there’s any effect from say, vouchers or charter schools, it’s modest at best and even debatable at that level. So, but what we do agree on, what most scholars can agree on is that we’re seeing a change in the policy making structures themselves. And this does have, you know, significant implications for democracy and public policymaking. But what we’re seeing then is these groups that are, you know, they’re thriving in the case of the Walton Family Foundation, for example, based on lower taxes, so they could keep more of the profits, they’re paying their workers a pretty small amount, and therefore a lot of the workers are on public subsidies for food stamps, for example. So, in a sense, they’re benefiting from a low tax climate and enriching their own coffers. And then they’re using those accumulated resources, then to directly change public policy making. To the extent that, you know, I think it’s okay to consider talking about this is private public policy making, you know, that they privatized that public policy making. Those dollars are no longer going through elected structures to decide where our needs are, and what are the best responses, instead, they’re being directed by private individuals who had their own ideas about what needs to be done. Again, they might be well intentioned, but they’re coming from a particular perspective, a corporate perspective about how things should be done, and they’re quite happy to cut out the electorate, or you know the will of the people to do what they think is best. Of course, they would say that, you know, they’re trying to address the needs of the disadvantaged who are marginalized by a lot of current structures. But there’s certainly an argument there, but at the same time, they’re really doing their best to bypass elected democratic structures that might get in the way.

Will Brehm:  25:33
And it seems that elected politicians, their relationship to policy making is now much more complicated. It’s not as if you’re electing someone to go and write policy and laws for your state or your local municipality or your nation, but rather you have these elected officials that are basically I don’t know how you would describe it navigating host of new actors that are participating in the actual policy creation.

Chris Lubienski:  26:07
Right. Now, I think that’s absolutely correct. And we know we point this to some examples in the article and I’ve done a paper with Mayne Au at University of Washington, where we looked at charter school advocacy in the state of Washington, the home of the Gates Foundation. And charter schools have, by and large, been passed by state legislators, but rejected by voters. The school choice in general, that tends to be the pattern, but in Washington, the Gates Foundation have been very active and getting charter schools passed by the voters. And they do this through donations to political campaign, and ultimately quite effective in doing that. So, it was the Gates Foundation’s employee, but also people affiliated with Microsoft, and we kind of look at the network there, groups that were supporting those funding, the campaign funds. A similar example would be coming out of Race to the Top in Illinois, there was a definite and acknowledge strategy of funding for policymakers who would advance on some of the more controversial aspects of Race to the Top in terms of measuring the effectiveness of teachers, for example. And I think the reform groups there were very deliberate and strategic about which people they needed funding or needed to be targeted with funding and who might be threatened by not having that funding. And so it’s not just a matter of providing the legislative templates and evidence of the effectiveness but also political strategy of looking at who are the key players that are maybe on the bubble that could it be persuaded by, you know, political leverage.

Will Brehm:  28:03
And what are universities in this new kind of governance structure that we see? How are they implicated in this new network?

Chris Lubienski:  28:12
It’s great question, because this isn’t just a matter of, you know, emerging think tanks sector or emerging sector of intermediary organizations that are advocating this. Universities have a lot of, you know, cachet and prestige, you know, even though obviously, there’s a lot of political and ideological influence on campuses as well, they had been seen as a somewhat objective and more deliberate structure through which a lot of these ideas can be evaluated. But I think, you know, some of these groups have recognized that these could be also very useful allies and advocating for different ideas. So we’re seeing examples of universities being the beneficiaries of some of these grants, in order to set up centers, for example, that are meant to facilitate an advocate for particular ideas, and, of course, has gone back on for a long period of time. But there’s, I think, increasing concern that there’s not independence there, that in fact that funding is going for specific projects and centers that are going to facilitate in advance an agenda rather than actually evaluate the effectiveness of the policies promoted by that agenda. And so what’s happening is in a sense some universities are selling their brand name, they’re allowing the centers to trade in on the prestige of that brand, which these funders are quite happy to buy into, have the name prestigious university affiliated with their, or are associated with their agenda, saying this is proof that this intervention works.

Will Brehm:  30:02
So, what advice would you have to any university deans out there?

Chris Lubienski:  30:07
Well, that’s a great question. And not being a dean myself, I mean, I think one thing is that they need to consider what are the tradeoffs? I mean, there’s a short-term benefit to getting a big grant from some of these organizations, but it’s starting to erode the credibility I think of some institutions. And so, they have to be concerned about that tradeoff between credibility and cash, which has longer term implications that might outlast the tenure particular dean. And there also, I think, needs to be attention focused on a firewall. I mean, universities survive on private donations from alumni and from foundations, those have become more and more critical, especially for public institutions as tax funding has declined. So they’re looking to these private sources, but there needs to be structures in place to guarantee that there’s complete independence and how that funding is used with regard to research and that the funders themselves aren’t dictating not just the agenda of what researchers are going to be pursuing, but also certainly the findings and there’s concern that that might be for sale as well.

Will Brehm:  31:25
So, over the last 25 years, you’ve done various research on educational privatization, what have been some of the biggest surprises that you’ve uncovered?

Chris Lubienski:  31:37
That’s a great question. I think one thing is something that came up earlier, just as it’s the privatization of public policy making, you know, in the past, there have been private interests that have been advocating for certain issues, but now we’re seeing the actual structures and processes of public policy making themselves being privatized, in a sense public policy makers are contracting out their responsibilities to some of these private interests. And I think one of the surprises there is just how pervasive and openness this is, there doesn’t seem to be, in some cases, that doesn’t seem to be any attempt to try and shield us, they’re very open that they think that these types of decisions are better held in the hands of private corporate interest, rather than in the hand of elected officials or elected bodies. So, there’s no shame involved in that for some people they don’t see that as a problem from a democratic perspective.

Will Brehm:  32:42
Well, Chris Lubienski, thanks for joining FreshEd.

Chris Lubienski:  32:47
My pleasure. Thank you.

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