We examine the spread and influence of ideas supported by philanthropic foundations within the context of a broader policy network. Our case focuses on the development of policy related to teacher quality—a field involving academic research, think tank involvement, and interest group participation. We conduct discourse network analysis of testimony from 175 Congressional hearings from 2003 to 2015 to examine network ties based on shared policy preferences expressed in hearings, which were used to create networks linking policy actors via shared policy preferences. We also conducted 51 interviews with funders, grantees, and policymakers involved in the policy debate over teacher quality. We examine the spread of a key policy reform promoted by several large foundations, particularly the Gates Foundation: test score-based evaluation of teachers, with a focus on value-added evaluations. We show that expert witnesses in hearings who were funded by foundations shared policy preferences with regard to teacher evaluation at a statistically significant level, compared to non-grantees. We find that a group of major national foundations were sponsors of the advocacy groups that were central in Congressional hearings. We show that these funders were acting as policy entrepreneurs—strategically promoting the spread of favored ideas to encourage uptake by policymakers.
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Our decision to exclude the question and answer segments of the hearings is based on Fisher, Waggle, and Leifeld’s approach to discourse network analysis of Congressional testimony on climate change. We elected to analyze only witness statements that demonstrate specific policy preferences, as opposed to the back-and-forth dialogue between witnesses and policymakers. Like Fisher, Waggle, and Leifeld, we determined that this decision would provide a reliable and systematic process for coding. Witness statements are entered into the record with consistency in duration, form and style, whereas question and answer portions are frequently dominated by some voices over others; are dependent on background context that is not included in the record, nor that can be specifically linked to a single witness; and vague or off-topic. This methodological decision has implications for our analysis; had we elected to include the question and answer sections for all hearings, we would no doubt capture additional nuance that emerges in debate and dialogue, which might deepen and clarify our inferences. The difference between these two research designs poses a ripe area of future research.
The foundations included are: Gates, Broad, Walton, Arnold, Joyce, Carnegie, Robertson, Kellogg, Dell, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Hewlett, GE, Irvine, Fisher, Communities Foundation of Texas, Daniels, and Ford.
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Funding was provided by William T. Grant Foundation (Grant No. 183183). The authors would like to thank Sarah Galey for her important contributions to the project and research assistance. We would also like to thank Abigail Orrick and Jeffrey Snyder for their research assistance.
Appendix: Policy preference codebook
Appendix: Policy preference codebook
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Reckhow, S., Tompkins-Stange, M. Financing the education policy discourse: philanthropic funders as entrepreneurs in policy networks. Int Groups Adv 7, 258–288 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-018-0043-3
- Policy networks
- Discourse analysis
- Education policy
- Mixed methods