A Conversation with the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess (Part 2 of 2)
The education scholar speaks with Michael E. Hartmann about teaching, his early career, public-sector reform, and private-sector philanthropy.
Rick Hess is a resident scholar and director of the Education Policy Studies program at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He is executive editor of Education Next and blogs, often with humor but always straightforwardly, at Education Week’s “Rick Hess Straight Up.”
Hartmann: In your 2017 Letters to a Young Education Reformer, a chapter on “Philanthropy and Its Discontents” encourages “funders to think of their own work more in terms of ‘little-p’ than ‘big-P’ philanthropy—that is, with more emphasis on rethinking and less on the agenda of the moment.” Why?
Hess: Here’s the context. In the book, I talk about “big-R” reformers and “little-r” reformers. “Big-R” reformers are people who think that what we need are big, all-capital SOLUTIONS to make schools better. In the 21st Century, the major “big-R” reforms have been things like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core. Look, a lot of really wonderful people are “big-R” reformers. I’m not. I don’t think that’s how you improve American education.
Schools are these human, complicated enterprises with deep community roots. Especially given the construction of our federal system, these all-caps reforms, no matter how well-intended, tend to play out in ways no one intended. “Little-r” reform is more focused on opening up the system, removing obstacles, and creating room for more localized and entrepreneurial solutions.
“Big-P” and “little-p” philanthropy reflects that same split. “Little-p” philanthropy seeks to create more opportunities for educators to reimagine school systems, for good new schools to open, and for families to find the best options for their children. “Big-P” philanthropy is much more grand. It’s focused on identifying solutions and grand remedies, on fixing laws, and on “transforming” education.
Hartmann: I guess it’s difficult for people, including me—I will not include you in this—to name successful “small-p” philanthropies, because they’re not as well known. That’s the problem.
Hess: Absolutely. That’s true for me too. Look, there are tens of thousands of donors in the U.S., and I don’t think I can name more than a tiny handful of them. Instead, we all tend to talk about the same 25 or 35 donors. They get featured in the magazines. They underwrite the big conferences.
What you really wind up with is a cartel—not in a malicious sense, but in a descriptive sense. Everybody who writes about or studies this stuff tends to be funded by one of these major entities, just because the other guys don’t have deep pockets and thus don’t usually fund research and punditry and such. We wind up with research and commentary that focuses on this relatively small set of actors, which leaves well more than 99 percent of the funders out there unremarked and wreathed in shadows.
Hartmann: If there’s no malice, and I wouldn’t argue that there’s malice, might there be a susceptibility to arrogance on the part of philanthropy?
Hartmann: What does that mean for your argument. It makes it worse, doesn’t it, human nature?
Hess: Sure. I sometimes think you’d have to be superhuman to work at a major foundation and not be subject to this. You know the inevitable put-the-audience-at-ease, self-deprecating joke told by anyone who takes a foundation job: “When I first took this job, somebody told me I’ll never again have a bad meal or tell an unfunny joke.”
They get it. These are people who mean well. After all, if you’re an aspiring evildoer, education philanthropy is probably pretty low on your list of appealing career paths.
But these staff are also surrounded by people who want them to fork over money. To put it delicately, that is an awkward foundation for an honest, two-way relationship.
People who want your money—whether they’re selling you a car or asking you for a grant—are going to be understandably reluctant to offend you. When they challenge your assumptions, they’re going to do it as gently as possible, in ways that don’t risk alienating you.
This also means funders tend to get away with stuff. They can be discourteous, because no one in that meeting is inclined to call them out for being late or self-absorbed.
This can all create an invisible bubble. Funders talk to all the stakeholders and feel like they’re getting honest feedback, which makes it possible to mistake the things people want to tell them for the unvarnished truth. That gap between the things they think they know and what they don’t know is a source of all kinds of problems.
Hartmann: Who’s there to humble them? Well, Rick Hess.
Hess: [Laughter.] You chatted about this with Jay Greene, in a great discussion. One factor here is the amount of turnover in these foundation roles. It’s aggravated because education tends to serve as a starter home in the policy beat. Reporters start on education and then graduate. Advocates start in education and then graduate to broader domestic-policy portfolios. And the same is true for funders.
You’ll meet a very large number of people who’ve been doing this for five or 10 years or less. Naturally enough, this means they don’t have a lot of institutional memory. They may not be familiar with what has been tried or why it may have disappointed. So, they may think they’ve stumbled on a new insight, when they haven’t, or they’ll chalk earlier failures up to the ineptitude of their predecessors or to “implementation problems.” This can all make it easy to underestimate challenges and overestimate the promise of one’s new program or strategy.
Meanwhile, observers who raise these cautions can get a reputation as skeptics and then, getting frustrated by being labeled skeptics, they tend to turn snarky. In the end, people who could have been constructive critics can wind up getting pigeonholed—or pigeonholing themselves—as naysayers and troublemakers. That makes it even easier for philanthropists to unintentionally surround themselves with more-agreeable souls.
Hartmann: You get along with everybody. Have you pulled any punches when discussing with a funder anything regarding policy reform or your work?
Hess: I try not to. My job, after all, is to offer honest analysis as best I can. But, in truth, I probably have softened the delivery of a critique or an argument at some point. And yet I doubt many funders would see it that way. Folks at foundations get so accustomed to being treated with circumspection that anything less than that can seem abrasive.
Hartmann: Does the philanthropic phenomenon you are describing exist equally among liberal or conservative foundations?
Hess: Most education philanthropy is left-of-center, so it’s a much-bigger phenomenon there. But I think what we’re talking about exists on both the right and the left, especially when it comes to funders tending to gather with the like-minded.
Hartmann: Is education philanthropy too politicized, or maybe just too cognizant of the political calendar?
Hess: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s too politicized, per se. It’s not especially political in an electoral sense.
At the same time, politics is always downstream from culture. And education philanthropy today is so rife with cultural politics that things which feel political are ubiquitous in mission statements, funding priorities, and the worldviews of staff at the major funders. This stuff gives most of the major education foundations a decidedly homogeneous, left-leaning cast that I do find to be problematic.
Non-miasmic school-choice grantmaking, and its incremental advances
Hartmann: I’m most familiar from Bradley with school choice as an ed reform, in the forms of both vouchers and charter schools. How are they doing? Has all the grantmaking in support of choice been worth it?
Hess: Without a doubt. One of the interesting things about school choice is it gets us away from that miasma we were talking about when it comes to reforming big districts. For good or ill, it’s relatively easy for funders and advocates to be clear on how they’re doing when it comes to choice. Are there more choice options? Are increasing numbers of families using these programs? Did more schools open? That kind of clarity has helped choice-focused funders to stick to business and avoid the pendulum swings and the hype cycle.
How confident we can be that the growth of choice is doing good things for children and for communities is always, of course, a complicated determination.
Hartmann: And will take longer to answer.
Hess: Yep. For one thing, that’s where even those who agree on the principle of choice start to fragment. How intrusive should we be in gauging what constitutes a good school? How much can school quality be gauged based on reading and math scores? What kinds of constraints should there be on the operating of choice options, in terms of enrollment practices, special education, and more?
Hartmann: The incremental nature of the advances in the choice arena probably helped, didn’t it? If choice proponents, philanthropic or otherwise, in the 1990s got everything they wanted right away or within five years, we’d be in a different world that I think might not be as good, right?
Hess: I think that’s right. One of the great curses can be getting what you asked for, when you ask for it. Imagine if the enactment in 1990 of the Milwaukee voucher program and in 1991 of the Minnesota charter law had been followed by explosive growth, spurred by an ambitious federal law or by sweeping state action. I think it’s safe to say it would have been a mess.
A slew of lousy schools would have cropped up. There would have been lots of news stories about scandals relating to transportation, dubious instructional practices, and confused parents. None of the infrastructure would have been in place. There would have been none of the hard-earned lessons about transportation, or getting parents the information they need to make choices, or how to gauge performance.
Now, I didn’t think this way at the time. This is where history and experience are helpful. It hasn’t always felt like it, but in the long run, school choice has benefited from the need to take things step by step.
Serious scholars can stay and be stifled, or simply skedaddle
Hartmann: How does the higher-ed “playing field” differ from K-12 in terms of trying to effect reform philanthropically or otherwise? Is it harder or easier?
Hess: There’s been so little philanthropic effort to really reform higher ed that I don’t think we know. The higher-ed landscape is profoundly different. A much-bigger chunk of higher-education funding comes from Washington. Much less of the money is directly controlled by elected officials who see themselves as empowered to run these institutions. The landscape is much more fragmented. Prestige is a much more-explicit part of the calculus. Influential institutions aren’t just in the business of educating students, they’re also research centers and hubs of economic activity.
It’s a different world from K-12. But we honestly just don’t know whether it would be harder or easier for philanthropy to reform higher education.
Hartmann: Hence last year’s National Affairs article with Brendan Bell?
Hess: That’s right.
Hartmann: How has “An Ivory Tower of Our Own” been received among those in a position to maybe pick up the tab on such a tower?
Hess: The reception has been largely positive. I think there’s a shared sense that those of us on the right tend to grumble about higher ed, and then throw up our hands. Thus the appeal of actionable ideas. That’s what we tried to offer, and I think it’s been received accordingly.
The big question we tackled is: how do you start to change the higher education landscape? After all, universities are not just places where kids learn. They’re also engines of culture. One problem is that heterodox academics, especially serious conservative scholars, wind up feeling marginalized at the major research institutions, or skedaddle over to places like Hoover or AEI. We wind up with few conservatives training graduate students, editing journals, or influencing university hires.
How do you change that? Well, we propose that it might be useful to create an elite research institution that is unapologetically supportive of heterodox scholarship. This would be a place where all of the gateways—from hiring, to tenure, to promotion, to securing grants, to journal editorships—would be amenable, hospitable to talented scholars who feel marginalized in the academy. The primary point is not that this would be a place of teaching, but a place that would recruit, cultivate, and promote scholars willing and able to tackle big questions in heterodox ways.
To do this, you need a full university infrastructure, because you don’t just want academics working in isolation, like at a think tank. Rather, you want them working as part of the academic community, training graduate students, and preparing scholars who have the publications and runway to land jobs at established universities. We estimated the price tag to do this thing at scale. It would be like three and a half billion dollars. It’s not cheap, but if you think about the amount of charitable giving that gets thrown annually at colleges and universities, it’s not nearly as big a figure as it might seem.
Can this even be done? Is it possible to build a green-field institution that’ll have that kind of impact? We think it absolutely is. Twenty-five years ago, New York University was a commuter school and Wash. U. [Washington University] had to keep explaining to people that it was neither in Washington State nor Washington, D.C. Today, these are influential research institutions.
This is not a five-year project, but it’s not hard to make the case that over the course of 20 years, say by the early 2040s, you could birth an institution that would be able to go toe-to-toe with the Cornells and Dukes of the world.
The trick is that higher ed has done a phenomenal job of using alumni ties, aggressive fundraising, and selling access, with the result that even right-leaning donors wind up underwriting hard-science laboratories, or football stadiums, or buildings—without necessarily bothering to ask themselves about just what they’re subsidizing.
Hartmann: Are you guilty of being too bold? I mean, where’d your appreciation for school-choice incrementalism at the end of the K-12 part of our conversation go when we got to higher ed?
Hess: That’s a fabulous question. I tend to think this is incremental.
After all, one approach is to use policy levers to change higher ed. There’s talk of accountability based on degree completion: very much a “No Child Left Behind goes to college” kind of thing. That feels like to me “big-R” reform in higher ed. It’s easy to think of all the ways universities will find to make sure everybody gets a degree.
What I like about the “ivory tower” notion is that it’s about private philanthropy doing something which was routine 100 or 150 years ago, when a dozen or more colleges and universities would launch every year. It means viewing higher ed as a vibrant sector where new institutions are born, and where today’s influential elite is not immutable. That kind of dynamic process is how we got Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and so many other places. This feels to me like “little-r” dynamism and invention.
Now, as you note, it is certainly big and expensive. That’s one of the ways in which higher ed is fundamentally different. The ante can be much higher than in K-12. This is a challenge. But the rules and marketplace may also make it easier to build institutions that will be freer from political interference or funding machinations, which just might make this space more appealing than K-12.
In the end, I’m less confident that we’ve stumbled on the right answer here than that we need to ask some different questions. And this piece, as with so much of my work, was an attempt to do just that.
This article first appeared in the Giving Review on January 13, 2020.