Gates targets education policy

The Gates Foundation, with a whopping $37 billion in assets, is spending more to influence education policy, writes Joy Pullman in Heartlander Magazine. The foundation funds “myriad seemingly grassroots” advocacy groups. That’s causing concerns, she writes.

“Philanthropists, unlike teachers unions, they don’t have an obvious constituency,” said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State political science professor. “Teachers unions represent teachers. Who does the Gates Foundation represent?”

Gates has spent $173 million to develop Common Core State Standards and to persuade 46 states to adopt them, writes Pullman. At an Indiana legislative hearing, 26 of the 32 people who testified against a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Core are members of organizations the Gates Foundation funds.”

“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” said Jay Greene, who runs the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Still, Greene thinks the foundation is following education reform trends already adopted by the “D.C. elite,” not setting them. Gates and the U.S. Department of Education are together “push[ing] down into states and localities the consensus they have already arrived at,” he said.

The Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2009 after four Gates employees moved to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, worries that Gates has too much influence.

“I’d like others—particularly [in] the communities that are impacted by the most high-profile school policies—to have at least an equal voice to those from the outside,” he wrote in an email to School Reform News.

Nearly everyone Pullman interviewed “agreed Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation’s employees are, as Greene put it, ‘good people trying to do good things.’ But that does not quell their concerns.” (She must not have talked to Diane Ravitch.)

There are people who think Bill Gates is trying to get even richer by giving billions of dollars away. I think that’s crazy. But I do worry about the foundation’s enormous clout in education debates.

Conspiracy theories about nefarious philanthropists are “laughable,” writes RiShawn Biddle. There’s nothing stealthy about the Gates Foundation’s role in advocating for the Common Core, he adds. Bill and Melinda Gates are “doing nothing more than what any of us would do if we had the cash: Using their dollars and influence to  engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live.”

The American Federation of Teachers gave $6 million to advocacy groups and charities in 2011-12, reports the Education Intelligence Agency. The largest donation was $1.2 million to Californians Working Together, which backed a state ballot measure that raised taxes to fund schools.

Most of the donations were ho-hum, but I was a bit surprised to see $10,000 went to the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center and another $9,155 to the Center for Citizenship Education in Mongolia. I like Rabin. I favor good citizenship in Mongolia. But is this why teachers pay union dues?

Do we want the feds to run our schools?

Without discussion or debate, the U.S. education system is being nationalized, writes Marc Tucker, who heads the National Center on Education and the Economy, in the Los Angeles Times.

Historically, the federal government’s role was to aid, assist, prod and push schools, districts and states. But the key word was always “aid.” . . . The feds avoided interfering in any important way with the design of a state’s education system unless issues of civil rights were involved, and in those cases, it was generally the courts rather than the executive or legislative branches that sparked the intervention.

“The federal role in education has undergone a massive transformation” since the George H.W. Bush administration, Tucker writes. President Obama’s Education Department — acting independently of Congress and the states — is setting education policy for the nation.

(Policies) include national standards aligned with national tests, a push for evaluating (and rewarding or punishing) teachers based on their students’ test scores, and a strong emphasis on marketplace pressures, including charter schools, to ensure the survival of successful schools — and the failure of weak ones.

. . . Do we really want the executive branch of the federal government to decide, pretty much by itself, what the aims of American education should be and how they should be achieved?

It’s time to talk about the proper federal role in education policy, “before we wake up one day to find that the executive branch, or even the entire federal government, has become our national school board,” Tucker concludes.

 

Obama ad: Romney agrees with Duncan on class size

President Obama’s new ad hit accuses challenger Mitt Romney of believing class size doesn’t matter:  ”Some of our children’s greater experiences have been in smaller classrooms … but Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter, and he supports Paul Ryan’s budget, which could cut education by 20 percent,” the ad says.

Romney never said class size doesn’t matter, reports CNN.

Talking to a group of Philadelphia teachers  in May, Romney said, “If you had a class size of five, that would be terrific. If you have a class size of 50, that would be impossible.”

But Romney cited a McKinsey Global Institute Study that showed sometimes schools with small classes fail and sometimes schools with big classes succeed. Therefore, he said, class size should not be given excessive weight in efforts to improve schools.

Obama’s Education secretary, Arne Duncan, agrees.  Class size might matter up to third grade, but “but in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size,”  Duncan said in 2010. “In fact, teachers in Asia sometimes request larger class sizes because they think a broad distribution of students and skill levels can accelerate learning.”

Romney’s K-12 education plan ”contains some interesting ideas and some problematic ones,” writes Matthew Yglesias, who also notes that Duncan and Romney agree on class size.

At “the very Obama-friendly Center for American Progress,” where Yglesias used to work, the education team also holds the Romney-Duncan position:

It’s not that “class size doesn’t matter” exactly. It’s that at most plausible margins, it makes more sense to invest money in hiring and retaining the most effective teachers rather than in simply adding more teachers. The fact that Obama agrees with Romney about this is presumably why Obama’s education policies have focused on investing money in teacher quality rather than in maximizing the number of teachers.

Romney’s “budget won’t leave much money for anything,” including K-12 education, writes Yglesias.

Public educators must live with public policies

Education leaders need to get over their aversion to education policy, writes Rick Hess, who’s been teaching at Penn and Rice.

I had smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems. About pols who weren’t willing to spend enough on schools. About why pols don’t listen to them or ask their advice. About how the pols ought to stick to their own business, and let educators run the schools. In general, the view was that policy is something done to them by meddling pols who don’t know their place.

Get over yourselves, advises Hess.

. . . Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public policies.

This isn’t new, he writes. Public policy always has determined spending, class size, subject matter and teacher qualifications. People notice it more now because there’s “substantial dissatisfaction with how schools are doing and with the effects of these older rules and regs.”

If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

If you think educators should run public schools as they see fit, you have to believe that generals should set national security policy, police should write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical companies make health policy and bankers to regulate banking, Hess concludes.

Medicaid ruling could limit federal coercion — or not

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding ObamaCare includes a restriction on using Medicaid funds to force states to adopt federal policies, notes School Law Blog. That could have implications for education spending.

In fact, just as they did at oral arguments in March over the Affordable Care Act, the justices in their opinions on Thursday raised several education laws and cases, making comparisons between the federal health insurance program for the poor and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for example. Some of the justices most critical of the health law also appeared concerned about an ever-expanding federal role in education.

The court ruled 7-2 that “the Medicaid expansion violates the U.S. Constitution by threatening the states with the loss of their existing Medicaid funding if they decline to comply with the expansion.”

“Congress may use its spending power to create incentives for states to act in accordance with federal policies,” the chief justice said. “But when pressure turns into compulsion, the legislation runs contrary to our system of federalism.”

However, the ruling may not give states much protection from federal coercion on education, opines Rick Hess.

The justices said that the feds can make new funds conditional, but can’t threaten to yank existing federal aid. Hmmmm. What happens when the feds rejigger funding formulas during a reauthorization and a state is now entitled to receive less funding–are states to be held harmless below their old baseline? If programs grow substantially over time, the new, “coercive” federal conditions will eventually apply to much or most of the funds. Is that a problem? What if the feds zero out one edu-grant program, but immediately launch a new, similar program. Since the program is “new,” are policymakers free to attach conditions to their hearts’ content?

States will be pressured to expand health coverage and spending, he predicts. That means there will be less money for K-12 and higher education.

Reform School: What’s the federal role?

Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor of education reform,  and Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, discuss the federal role in education on Reform School, a new PBS series by ChoiceMedia.TV.

Obama, Romney won’t talk about education

Two-thirds of voters in swing states said education is an “extremely important” election issue, but Obama and Romney aren’t talking about education’s hard questions, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time.

They aren’t even talking up their own successes. Why? Because education reform doesn’t fit well with the overall argument either candidate is making about why he should get to sit in the Oval Office next January.

Obama’s education policy alienates teachers’ unions, while Romney’s conservative base wants education policy to be set locally. Of course, everybody’s now in favor of keeping student loan interest rates low.

When the feds try to fix schools . . .

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America s Schools, edited by Rick Hess and Andrew P. Kelly, looks at what Uncle Sam does and doesn’t do well. Contributors include Ron Ferguson, Mike Smith, Larry Berger, Charlie Barone, Maris Vinovskis, Mike Casserly, Checker Finn, Mark Schneider, Liz DeBray, Pat McGuinn, Jennifer Wallner, Paul Manna, Josh Dunn and Jane Hannaway.

Hess has more in Ed Week on the book and on an American Enterprise Institute discussion on Education 2012: What the Election Year Will Mean for Education Policy.