Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

In her annual letter summing up the year’s accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, offers a sort of mea culpa to explain what has happened in the organization’s philanthropy in education. Gates has been at the forefront of strategic philanthropy, by which a foundation sets the priorities and tries to accomplish particular reforms its chosen “experts” have identified.

Here is what Desmond-Hellmann confesses, specifically regarding the Foundation’s push for the Common Core Standards: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.  We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning… This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.  The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  Desmond-Hellman also explains that the Gates Foundation is committed to evidence-based experimentation: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence.”

Desmond-Hellmann doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of the foundation’s strategy, merely that the Foundation missed engaging all the stakeholders.  And she seems to assume that a sort of apology will cover any worry about the collateral damage inflicted by mega-experiments, most particularly the experiments that were abandoned.

The Los Angeles Times, responded to Desmond-Hellman and the Gates Foundation in a stunning and scathing editorial about the damage inflicted.  The newspaper’s editors recount the history of Gates’ experimentation in education:

  • “The Gates Foundation’s first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates’ conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size… The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn’t make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.”
  • “Then the foundation set its sights on improving teaching, specifically through evaluating and rewarding good teaching… In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%…  (T)he Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools.  The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.”
  • More recently the foundation has been investing in the development and implementationof the Common Core Standards, the subject of last week’s sober explanation of problems in what Desmond-Hellmann says was the roll out.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board concludes: “(T)he Gates Foundation has spent so much money—more than $3 billion since 1999—that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy… Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.  The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

In a recent column on the impact of Gates’ investment in the promotion of charter schools in the state of Washington, Joanne Barkan reflects further: “Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work.  He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.  His entree into policy-making is money, not expertise.”

And Diane Ravitch, who identified the work of the Billionaire Boys in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is just being republished in a revised edition), defines the problem of large-scale, money-driven experimentation on America’s school districts and 50 million children: “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan quotes Bill Gates from an interview in May 2015, when he discussed the challenges democracy poses for his foundation: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.” “We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.” “It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”


Will We Permit the Theft of Our Democracy?

This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work.  As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.

Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions.  The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.

My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district.  The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools.  The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union.  Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”

Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit.  The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door.  Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening.  In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission.  In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.

And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education.  We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes.  Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,

Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance.  Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization.  In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:

“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue.  They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change.  In short, they are a democratic forum.  They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively…  They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account…  There is an arrogance to unchecked power.  There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes…  No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)

Congressional Dithering and No Child Left Behind Waivers Subvert Democratic Checks and Balances

In this morning’s New York Times, Robert Reich describes a serious consequence of gridlock in Congress: the loss of democracy.  “Political decision making has moved to peripheral public entities, where power is exercised less transparently and accountability to voters is less direct.”  Reich explains the consequences for the management of the economy, for the balance of power with the Supreme Court, for our nation’s capacity to slow climate change, and for the balance among state and federal responsibilities.

Democracy is also being abrogated in another policy area less reported these days: public education.  And while this month the most obvious examples of threats to democratic governance of the public schools are at the local level—the power of emergency managers appointed by Michigan’s governor to privatize whole school districts, to override labor contracts, and even to close school districts while elected school boards stand by to watch—there are also very serious issues of federal overreach by the U.S. Department of Education at this time when Congress cannot agree to act.

Although Congress is supposed to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) every five years, the 2002 version, called No Child Left Behind, is now six years overdue to be rewritten.  Still Congress dithers.  No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has now shaped federal public education policy for eleven years.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education have dealt with Congress’s inability to build consensus around an ESEA reauthorization by managing federal education policy administratively, granting waivers to states from onerous consequences of NCLB if the states submit proposals that conform to priorities set by the Department.  The waivers are being granted without any oversight by Congress.

No Child Left Behind waivers permit states to escape the unworkable and utopian Adequate Yearly Progress requirement that schools post ever higher annual test scores or be declared “failing.”  The waivers permit states to stop setting aside federal Title I money for transportation to support school choice by which students in so-called “failing” schools can move to other schools.  And the waivers permit states to get rid of the controversial Supplemental Education Services, a tutoring program that has diverted federal funds away from in-school Title I programming to outside, after-school tutoring programs that have too often profited unscrupulous providers.

While there is now widespread agreement that Adequate Yearly Progress, school transfers, and Supplemental Education Services harmed public schools, there is growing concern about the administrative—not democratic—way the Department of Education has sought to provide relief.  To qualify for waivers, states’ applications had to include adoption of one of two versions of the Common Core Standards, including new and controversial standardized tests like those whose scores New York reported earlier this week.  To qualify for waivers states have also had to agree to incorporate students’ standardized test scores in the evaluation of teachers.  These are Departmental—not Congressional—priorities.

The latest flap about the side-stepping of democracy through the NCLB waivers happened just this month.  After the Department of Education rejected California’s application for a waiver last year because California’s proposal did not meet the Department’s requirements for evaluating teachers, eight local California school districts including very large districts like Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, did an end run around their state department of education to apply for their own waiver as a consortium of school districts.  Writing for Education Week, Michele McNeil reported that on August 6,  the consortium of districts received a one-year NCLB waiver, which can be renewed on the condition that they fully implement the school-rating system and teacher-evaluation plans the eight districts proposed.

How does the federal granting of a NCLB waiver to a group of school districts interfere with democracy?  The issue is constitutional.  State constitutions, not the U.S. Constitution, grant the authority for the establishment and regulation of local school districts.  According to  McNeil, “…this waiver is unprecedented for its scope, and for how it changes the dynamic between districts, the state, and the federal government.”

In a follow-up commentary, McNeil wonders, for example, about a new oversight panel the eight California districts created to police themselves: “Will the new ‘oversight’ panel provide enough oversight… as a state would provide in the traditional accountability relationship?  …the oversight panel’s authority (such as it is) is derived from a really squishy place.  This new panel’s power is not rooted in law, or state board regulations, but in a waiver agreement between the feds and these districts.”

You may wonder: Isn’t this too arcane and too far “out in the policy weeds” for most of us to care about it?  That’s just the problem.  While as individuals we are unlikely to be able to track and impact policy at this level, our democracy was set up with three branches of government to balance and check each other. When Congress (the legislative branch) fails to make the laws (what our civics classes taught us Congress is supposed to do), when it cannot reach any sort of compromise to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there is no check on what is today the overreach of the executive branch, in this case represented by the U.S. Department of Education.

To its credit, the Department of Education has made an effort to alleviate the damage of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The problem is that the Department’s method of trying to fix NCLB without adequate Congressional oversight increasingly interferes with the democratic process.  Democratic governance of public education is essential for ensuring that  families can secure the education to which their children have a right.