Gates’ money is everywhere

Bill Gates is putting his billions into education advocacy, writes the New York Times. That includes “financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, ” creating new advocacy groups and “bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.”

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Berkeley Education Prof. Bruce Fuller tells the Times.

Researchers are careful about criticizing big-spending foundations, says Rick Hess. “Everybody’s implicated.”

The Gates Foundation funds the Education Equality Project, Education Trust, Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies, the Times notes. (And a whole lot more.)

Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

The Gates Foundation is not Dr. Evil, responds Rick Hess, who says his “implicated” quote referred to all education foundations, not just Gates.  He’s written in the past that few researchers bite the hand that feeds them — or might feed them in the future.

“Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty–where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.”

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy resembles “the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda,” Hess writes.

I’ve been writing Community College Spotlight for a year now. I’m paid by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers’ College of Columbia, which uses grants from, among others, the Gates Foundation. Many of the initiatives to improve community college graduation rates, redesign remediation, offer dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students and improve college readiness are funded, in part or full, by the Gates Foundation. I’m dubious about dual enrollment for struggling students: If  they can’t handle high school classes, how they can handle college classes? Nobody’s told me to cheer for every Gates idea. On the whole, I think the foundation is investing intelligently in the search for solutions to the most critical problems in education.

BTW, a recent comment accused “billionaire education reformers” of trying to push all students to a bachelor’s degree, regardless of their academic preparation or motivation.  This is not true of Gates. The foundation is heavily invested in improving community college programs that lead to a vocational certificate or associate degree.

The Gates Foundation is very, very influential in education because it puts lots of money behind the programs and policies that its people think are going to improve education. They’re not infallible. But what’s the alternative? Give billions to do the same thing only with laptops for the kiddies? That’s not going to happen.

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    An alternative: Work for laws and regulations and a moral code of ethics that compel business and industry to pay rather than evading U.S. taxes — just for starters, in that vein. Contribute to political candidates and initiatives with that in mind.

    The point of the NYT article is that Gates’ money entices educators, district leaders, policymakers et al. to pursue magical-thinking policies that the informed and experienced KNOW are unlikely to succeed or are even likely to do harm. Shrugging “what’s the alternative?” doesn’t seem like a very effective response. Surely there are ways to donate heavily and heavily support education that don’t involve imposing uninformed miracle cures on national education policy.

    As for the response to my blaming corporate education reformers for the equally unrealistic, and harmful, notion that all students must go to four-year college or be harshly labeled failures (along with their K-12 schools) — I see indications of that attitude all the time, including here in this forum. I try to call them out every time and will try harder not to let any go by, if I’m not making my point effectively enough.

    Every time a charter operator is hailed for its rate of sending students to four-year colleges, that’s an example. (The fact that some/many of them achieve that rate by dumping or keeping out the kids who aren’t college material is another issue.)

    No, I reiterate my charge that the corporate education reformers are heavily responsible for the unrealistic and damaging viewpoint that everyone must go to four-year college or be branded a failure, and the correlating absence of vocational/career/technical education in our high schools.

    It’s a combination, I think, of the fact that so many corporate education reformers and their supporters have no contact or experience with real live kids in real live classrooms; and that they intend to set public schools up for failure by setting an impossible standard. And we see that every time a charter school is hailed for its supposed matriculation rate to four-year colleges in comparison to the disparaged, “failing” public schools.

  2. George Larson says:


    I am not a fan of Bill Gates but what taxes has Bill Gates evaded?

    What do you mean by tax evasion? Tax evasion is a criminal act. Tax avoidance is legal. Paying the minimum tax according to the law is not tax evasion.

    Do you coinsider contibuting to a retirement account tax evasion?

    Do you fail to use all the deductions you are entitled to, to increase your taxes?

    Would you care about Bill Gates taxes if he used his foundation for causes you and I agreed with?

    Another way to control corporate behavior is buy shares of stock and take control of corporate boards.

  3. What is Gates Foundation investment compared to teachers unions’ investment in same cause: policy/advocacy?

  4. CarolineSF says:

    I’m not accusing Bill Gates of tax evasion — I’m talking about the many major corporations that manage to pay no income taxes in the U.S. — yes, technically I’m talking about avoidance, not ‘evasion’ as legally defined.

    If Bill Gates used his money to control national education policy but in a way that I felt was beneficial — well, to be honest, I’d probably keep my mouth closed, but I would find it a little sinister because I would worry that he might shift his resources to promote ideas that I felt were harmful. Since in reality he started out doing the latter and has continued on that destructive path, it’s certainly a lot easier for me to speak up!

  5. CarolineSF says:

    I don’t know the amount that teachers’ unions put into advocacy. But teachers’ unions are widely reviled, and they and teachers as individuals are treated with disdain and contempt by our political leadership, press and commentators. Gates, on the other hand, has been treated worshipfully by most of the press up until the recent Page 1 New York Times story, which may have changed the game; and his word is God to the Obama administration’s Department of Education. He drives the national education policy, due entirely to his wealth.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    ut teachers’ unions are widely reviled, and they and teachers as individuals are treated with disdain and contempt by our political leadership, press and commentators.

    Bull bleep. Bull bleeping bleep. I’m a teacher and my experience is that politicians suck up to me. I hear how wonderful education is, how important teachers are, etc, etc. I find Barack Obama making sure lots of stimulus money goes to teachers and I see no one, no one, saying we have too many teachers or that teachers are too well-paid.

    Yes, I hear politicians saying there are bad teachers who should be gotten rid of. But that’s true. I see governors and mayors and town managers saying that people are hurting and tax receipts are down and teachers will have to share some of that pain, Hey, that’s solidarity. I hear politicians saying that maybe there should be some sort of system that pays teachers on the basis of what their students learn as well as on how many ed courses they have taken. That’s not anti-teacher.

    And, yes, a number of commentators and politicians say bad things about teachers unions. That is not anti-teacher, any more than opposing the Iraq war was anti-American.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    “I don’t know the amount that teachers’ unions put into advocacy.”

    California teachers’ unions spend around $80M – $90M per year in non-representation activities. I think that these are almost entirely advocacy. What else could they be?

    I get this number by going with ~$300/year (more for some, less for others) that will be rebated to teachers who request that they get the non-representation money back:

    and then multiplying by the number of California public teachers: 300K

    Scaling this up to the country as a whole, and figuring that (a) California has about 1/8 to 1/10 the students and teachers of the nation as a whole, (b) California is more expensive than most other states, and (c) some states don’t have unions that do this, my guess is that teachers’ unions as a whole spend about $500M per year on advocacy.

    As a check on my estimate, one can go here:

    and see that about $100M per year is spent on education lobbying alone. Since a lot of the advocacy money is spent on things like political commercials during campaign season and donations to causes that the union leadership chooses I think that $500M per year nationally is in the right ballpark.

  8. Stuart Buck says:

    I find Barack Obama making sure lots of stimulus money goes to teachers and I see no one, no one, saying we have too many teachers or that teachers are too well-paid.

    Yes . . . it’s interesting that in the stimulus bill, about $95 billion went towards things like preserving teacher salaries and employment, Head Start, Title I, and special ed funding, while a mere $5 billion went to “Race to the Top.” Yet all we’ve heard from some quarters is a bunch of complaining that Obama supported Race to the Top, as if it wasn’t dwarfed nearly 20 times over by spending on things that the complainers prefer.

    If reformers got an education bill where $95 billion went to vouchers while a mere $5 billion went to paying for teachers to get more masters’ degrees in education, they wouldn’t be whining quite so much.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Is any one putting money into improving teacher colleges, administrators (both in central office and principals), etc.

  10. CarolineSF says:

    Those comments ARE anti-teacher, Roger. You’re in denial if you don’t think the contempt is directed straight at you, not just at teachers’ unions.

    New York Mag did a profile of Michelle Rhee that expressed it very well throughout.

    “Once deified, now demonized, teachers are under assault from union-busting Republicans on the right and wealthy liberals on the left. Once deified, now demonized, teachers are under assault from union-busting Republicans on the right and wealthy liberals on the left. …

    “Until fairly recently, everyone took it for granted that parents, educators, and communities shared the responsibility for schooling children, and presumed that outcomes were the product of a complex web of circumstances. Now the calculus has been narrowed to a single variable, the instructors, who are offered all the credit and shoulder all the blame.”

  11. CarolineSF says:

    (Unless you teach in a wealthy suburban school, charter school or private school, needless to say.)

  12. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline — I don’t see how it does your camp any good to act as if the terms “teachers” and “bad teachers” refer to precisely the same set of people.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is anti-teacher to say that all teachers are bad. It is anti-teacher to say that teachers only care about their pensions and their salary and their 16 weeks out of the classroom.

    It is not anti-teacher to say that there are some bad teachers–and that they should be fired. It is not anti-teacher to say that paying you for the number of ed courses you have taken is a bad idea. In fact, I would say that it is more anti-teacher to say you should be judged on the courses you have taken rather than your performance in the classroom. It is not anti-teacher to say that times are tough and everyone has to sacrifice.

    And, how to put this nicely: for years my union has said that teachers are the most important component of learning. Now, when some people say that teachers should then be judged on how well students learn, my union and their allies in the ed schools say that, hey, teachers really don’t have much effect on anything; it’s mostly what kids bring to school that counts. Teachers just aren’t that important. Is that anti-teacher or not? What if 40 years ago some right winger had said we shouldn’t pay teachers much because they just don’t have much effect?

  14. The control that billionaires exert over US educational policies, while sending their own kids to private schools, is inherently undemocratic and disenfranchises parents, teachers, and other stakeholders who have a deeper understanding of the problems afflicting our schools.

    Bill Gates in particular is guilty a vast experiment on low-income kids, w/out any supporting evidence and w/out the consent of their parents. And he is indeed a tax evader; check out

    the latter paper says that Microsoft has $29.5 billion in “permanently reinvested earnings” outside the United States, cheating the US of $9.2 billion in taxes.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    It is anti-teacher to base your message on the claims that the challenges of our public schools are the fault of bad teachers; that our teaching force needs to be purged and overhauled; that our veteran teachers amount to deadwood burnouts, that experience is not only worthless but a negative, and that inexperienced newcomers — ideally temps — bringing “fresh blood” are the best hope.

    It is anti-teacher to base an entire reform policy on the notion that the solutions are firing “bad teachers” and blaming, shaming, threatening, intimidating and publicly humiliating ALL teachers. And those practices are the heart of the current corporate-education-reform strategy.

    All those views are the center of the current corporate education reform movement, and they are absolutely anti-teacher.

    Your commentary amounts to one straw man after another, Roger.

  16. Bob Valiant says:

    Great job, Caroline! Hang in there.

  17. Obviously there is no reasoning with CarolineSF. Better to just ignore her, I suppose.

  18. Obviously there is no reasoning with CarolineSF. Better to just ignore her, I suppose.
    If it helps, the direction public education politics has taken the last fifteen or twenty years indicates a significant portion of the public’s already come to that conclusion.

    Sorry CarolineSF but Gates isn’t interested in throwing good money after bad although that’s practically the standard in much of the district-based public education system and there’s nothing you can do about it.

  19. Gates does nothing but throw good money after bad.

    While I feel very much appreciated and supported by the community in which I teach, I do tire very much of the nastiness of the public discourse in general. I believe wholeheartedly if we could get over partsian blame slinging and attack the problem from all of its angles (we are a big country and we can do this), reject the idea that the fixes will engender instant results, and decide once and for all that we value children for what they are, we will see progress in the coming decades. If we continue down the path we are on now, we will be debating (always debating and never solving) the same issues 25 years from now when I retire.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is anti-teacher to say that “the challenges of our public schools” are ALL the fault of bad teachers. It is not anti-teacher to say that some of it is.

    Until we as an organized profession get over our us v. them mentality, we will keep going around in circles. And the kids, who we do care about, will be the losers.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    There is an occasional quote in blogging, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Something like that. I gather it refers to a movie or something.
    Point is, we need to agree on meanings and that means we need to either agree on a world view or we need to completely understand other world views, which is not to say agree with them.
    Example. Sitting with some (young) friends. One, a teacher, said the district was going to be requiring another ten minutes per day next year and the folks are upset. Another teacher, also female, agreed that it was a problem. Husbands, one a financial adviser and the other an engineer, looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Smart enough to keep quiet, both as a domestic matter and because they feared, I presume, a barrage of the cliched CW coming at them. Need some commonality of language and expectation to be able to understand each other.

    One of the characteristics of the nations whose school systems do well is a homogenous population. In fact, it’s practically a perfect predictor. The race, the culture, and the subcultures are homogeneous. Or perhaps exceptions are not reported. Anybody seen any stats on the Ainu, for example?
    When I was working with exchange students years ago, I found that many of the systems from which these usually quite bright kids came divided into at least college/commercial-voc-ed tracks and we got the college-track kids. It would be interesting to compare all kids from one country to another.

    That said, edfadding is generally seen as a problem by the teachers–I wouldn’t know myself–as is the changing attitudes of the kids. My wife saw it in just under forty years of teaching.
    As long as there is money and political hay to be made in edfadding, it woh’t go away and you can only complain about kids’ attitudes intramurally.

  22. Mark Roulo says:

    “There is an occasional quote in blogging, ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means.’ Something like that. I gather it refers to a movie or something.”

    The movie is The Princess Bride.

    The context is that one of our villains keeps saying things along the lines of “it would be INCONCEIVABLE…” for something that has obviously happened. Eventually one of his sidekicks says to him: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Great movie. Highly recommended.

  23. georgelarson says:

    Leonie Hamison

    Exactly how is Bill Gates guilty of the criminal offense of tax evasion? Neither link mentions Bill Gates.

  24. CarolineSF says:

    Allen, if Gates was so smart about it, he wouldn’t fling vast sums of money into untested, unproven fads that strike his fancy and that have no record of success. But that’s what he does.

    He has a staff, and it certainly includes at least an occasional experienced educator, so it’s a mystery what the dynamic is there. Is Vicki Phillips rolling her eyes and thinking “OK Bill, you don’t listen, so you’ll find out the hard way”?

  25. The problem is that Gates may not continue to throw good money after bad.

    After all, he’d certainly have consulted with the experts in the field and what would he have heard? Small class sizes, small schools and whatever other trendy claptrap was currently sending thrills up the legs of edu-experts. So he threw good money after bad establishing that his stable of experts were mostly expert at separating Gates from his money. No small irony there, hey?

    What’s Gates going to do now that the conventional, and self-serving, wisdom is proven barren?

    That’s a worthy concern for anyone who believes in or depends on the current system. Between being one of the richest men in the world and having the ruthlessness, focus and willingness to discard much-loved conceits he’s in the position to promote just the sort of project to make the inefficiency and cruelty of the current system impossible for anyone not invested in the current system to ignore.