Who is backing 'The Bell Curve?'
The explosive conclusions of The Bell Curve are now common knowledge. What is less well known is that the country's leading conservative foundation paid co-author Charles Murray $1 million to write the book. Foundation funding of research is nothing new. But Murray's support from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is an example of the highly ideological research that conservative foundations favor as they seek to mold public policy. Even in the marketplace of ideas, it takes money to compete.
The Bell Curve's key educational policy recommendation dovetails with the Bradley Foundation's top education priority: support for school choice, including public funds for private and religious schools. This bolsters the case of those who argue that despite the rhetoric of choice, many voucher advocates have abandoned the vision of a quality education for all children. Says Robert Lowe, associate professor at National Louis University and an editor of the journal Rethinking Schools:
The Bell Curve is a smoking gun. It maintains that the poor - including the majority of African Americans - are generally incapable of benefiting from education....
C.J. Prentiss, an Ohio legislator (Independent/Democrat) who has been active in the African-American community opposing vouchers, also notes that voucher advocates have tried to win converts by arguing that vouchers would improve educational opportunities for the poor:
You have to be suspicious of someone who argues that on the one hand, African Americans are dumber than whites, and then, on the other, comes into the Black community and says, 'We are going to make you as bright as you can be, here are some vouchers.... I believe vouchers are simply a way to dismantle public schools and use tax dollars to fund an elitist private school system. But voucher advocates know it would be suicide to say that openly.
Big Backs let Conservative Causes
The Bradley Foundation is not as well known as other conservative foundations, such as the John M. Olin Foundation or the Sarah Scaife Foundation. It did not enter the world of big-time giving until 1985, when the sale of the Allen-Bradley Co. allowed its assets to jump to more than $290 million. They currently stand at about $425 million.
Bradley has often been described as the top U.S. financial backer of conservative research, publications, and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Under the leadership of President Michael S. Joyce, the Bradley Foundation also has helped establish the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of conservative foundations. Bradley has poured millions of dollars into studies, projects, and organizations promoting private school choice.
Although liberal foundations outnumber the conservatives, the liberals are not as likely to link their grant making to their political agenda. "The neoconservatives are much more consciously, purposefully, and in a focused way, trying to advance their ideas," says Waldemar Nielsen, author of Golden Donors, a book on the foundation movement.
The Bradley Foundation's role in The Bell Curve became public when The Milwaukee Journal reported on October 23 that the foundation paid the authors to write the book. The foundation was well aware of the explosive nature of Murray's research. In 1989, when he started collaborating with Richard Herrnstein on research into intelligence and genetics, the Manhattan Institute decided it would be best if Murray left. But Bradley, which had funded Murray at the Manhattan Institute, was willing to continue his $100,000 annual grant at his new home with the American Enterprise Institute.
Education Reform Is Choice
While some have portrayed Murray as a scholar and not a right-wing ideologue, Murray himself undercuts that view. Indeed, chapters 17-20 of The Bell Curve all end with recommended policy agendas.
The policies call for a shift in thinking away from the "disadvantaged" toward the "gifted." Overall, Murray and Herrnstein argue that policymakers
must come to terms with the reality that in a universal education system, many students will not reach the level of education that most people view as basic [emphasis theirs].
Joyce has gone so far as to dismiss issues such as curriculum reform or funding equity as mere "palliatives" that would stymie the implementation of choice.
Charlie Dee, an instructor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and a local observer of the Bradley Foundation, makes this prediction:
While vouchers will quite probably result in a few good schools started by creative and committed individuals, those schools will quickly discover that the voucher of $3,500 is only a fraction of what they need to run a quality school. And thus they will be forced to charge tuition. And once they charge tuition, they immediately put the good schools out of the reach of poor parents....
Lowe and Dee point out that The Bell Curve and the Bradley Foundation share a broader ideological perspective; both posit that the social problems facing this country are not related to structural issues of poverty, declining wages, racism, and discrimination, but rest in the behavior and abilities of individuals. As Lowe says:
What The Bell Curve makes clear is that the foundation's agenda is not so much to get the government off the backs of the people, but to get the redistributive government off the backs of the well-to-do.
Dee argues that The Bell Curve and the voucher movement represent an acceleration of the redistribution of wealth that began under former President Reagan:
Reagan stood Robin Hood on his head, and through tax and spending policies allowed the rich to become richer at the expense of the middle class and poor. Now we have a rationalization for it all. The rich are smart and the poor are dumb, and it's in the genes. There's nothing we can do about it but get the government out of the way and allow things to develop according to their biological destiny.
Barbara Miner is Managing Editor of Rethinking Schools, an independent education journal based in Milwaukee. She is also co-editor, along with Robert Lowe, of the report False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children's Future (1994). She can be reached at Rethinking Schools, 1001 E. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53212.