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.