Governing Through Failure

Katharyne Mitchell and Chris Lizotte. 2016. Governing through Failure: Philanthropy, Neoliberalism, and Education Reform in Seattle. In Brady, M. and Lippert, R. eds., Governing Practices: Neoliberalism and the Ethnographic Imaginary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

In the past thirty years, many philanthropic organizations in the United States have turned their attention to fostering a culture of grant-funded, project-driven experiments in primary and secondary education. Although philanthropic organizations have long been interested in establishing or bolstering educational institutions such as libraries and universities as a means of improving society, today’s ‘new’ philanthropy, known variously as venture philanthropy or philanthrocapitalism, embraces business language and practices, especially the logic of return on investment, reliance on quantitative metrics for evaluation, and targeted, short-term projects (Bishop and Green, 2008; Saltman, 2010). In the realm of primary and secondary education, these parameters heavily favor grantees that undertake projects that similarly apply quantitative metrics to education performance.

 To date most studies of philanthropic involvement in education reform has portrayed philanthropy as a monolithic, omnipotent force that is able to impose its desired changes upon schools, communities, or entire districts through funding contingent on draconian changes in educational policy such as mayoral takeovers of districts or forced conversions of neighborhood to charter schools. While the impact of such top-down changes is unquestioned (e.g. Lipman 2011), less research has focused on how philanthropic organizations actually interact with community partners to achieve their desired outcomes. This chapter conducts a ground-level study of a major philanthropic organization’s – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – repeated attempts to influence education policy in the city of Seattle over a decade, and the changes it made in its granting policies as a result of unexpected outcomes during this process. In doing so, it shows that philanthropic involvement in education reform is not a straightforward process of forcing change and that ground-level actors have an important, if unexplored, role in the uneven progress of neoliberal governmentality across space and in different sectors.