A month ago, this blog suggested that hubris is at the heart of today’s billionaire philanthropy but noted that Bill and Melinda Gates have so much power that, despite the tragic blindness of their privilege, there will be no tragic fall and no consequences. Now, with Bill and Melinda announcing their divorce, we continue to learn even more about how privilege in an unequal America insulates the super-rich who have the power to drive the public policy that shapes the institutions on which we all depend
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss seized the occasion of the Gates’ pending divorce as an opportunity to review the ways Bill and Melinda have used their influence and their money to shape public education policy at the federal level and across the states: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on numerous education projects—such as creating small high schools, writing and implementing the Common Core State Standards, evaluating teachers by standardized test scores—and the couple has had enormous influence on what happened in classrooms across the country. Their philanthropy, especially in the school reform area, has been at the center of a national debate about whether it serves democracy when wealthy people can use their own money to drive public policy and fund their pet education projects. The foundation’s financial backing of some of the controversial priorities of the Obama administration’s Education Department put the couple at the center of this national conversation. Critics have said that many of the foundation’s key education projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.”
Strauss doesn’t even mention some of the details. For example, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan wanted to encourage states to apply for Race to the Top Grants back in 2009—grants for which states could qualify only if they would agree to adopt Duncan’s (and the Gates’) favorite policies like removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools, adopting state standards, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave each state that wanted to apply $250,000 to hire experienced grant writers to prepare their federal applications.
And Tampa’s WFLA, News Channel 8 reported two weeks ago about the long term impact for Florida’ Hillsborough County School District of a 2009 Gates project to evaluate teachers by students’ standardized test scores and then provide bonuses to the best teachers. The Gates Foundation gave up on the experiment midstream: “The Hillsborough County Public School system is in a budget crisis. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has given the school board just days to come up with a financial plan to fund an emergency reserve account…. to be used in case of emergency or disaster. Some school board members estimate the account will be more than $100 million dollars short this year. Now, some school board members are blaming a 2009 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for putting the county on a path to have a budget shortfall… When the grant was announced, the county understood they would receive 100 million dollars if the county put up matching funds. When the grant expired in 2016, the Gates Foundation had only provided 80 million dollars, the county put up 124 million dollars… After further review, the foundation said they found bonuses to teachers didn’t improve the quality of education for students.”
Strauss explains further that Bill and Melinda Gates have been candid about admitting mistakes which had repercussions for children, teachers and public school budgets but which had no real consequences for the Gates themselves: “In 2013, Bill Gates said, ‘It would be great if our education stuff worked. But that we won’t know for probably a decade.’ It didn’t take 10 years for them and their foundation to acknowledge that key education investments didn’t turn out as well as they hoped. In the Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, Melinda Gates said, ‘The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite.’ That same annual letter had a rather remarkable statement from Melinda Gates about the role of the wealthy in education policy…. ‘We certainly understand why so many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.'”
Except that Melinda’s description isn’t how Gates’ philanthropy has worked. The Gates Foundation has regularly been the generator of the ideas.
Back in June of 2003, for example, their foundation put out a press release: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $22 million investment in the NewSchools Venture Fund to increase the number of high-quality charter schools around the country by creating systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.” Certainly this was a Gates Foundation-initiated project, and we know how those nonprofit chains of charter schools have morphed today in too many instances into giant for-profit CMOs.
Despite their pending divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates both plan to continue as co-chairs and trustees of the Foundation. Is there a chance that their pending divorce will cause Bill and Melinda to reconsider the danger of their own power? It doesn’t look like it. In a NY Times interview last December, Melinda Gates acknowledged that venture philanthropy does shape policy these days, but Melinda seems to have convinced herself that the partnership of philanthropy and government is a form of collaboration. What she misses is that Gates’ investments have regularly involved the wielding of vast sums of money to purchase public policy. The reporter asks: “Do you accept the line of criticism that says big philanthropy has too much power right now, that individuals, not governments, are making decisions that shape educational policy and public policy?”
Melinda answers: “I think that’s a critique that is well worth listening to and looking at. In our philanthropic work, there isn’t a single thing that we don’t work on in partnership with governments. Because at the end of the day, it is governments that scale things up and that can help the most people. There is a healthy ecosystem that needs to exist between government, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society… You know, if Bill and I had had more decision-making authority in education, maybe we would’ve gotten farther in the United States. But we haven’t. Some of the things that we piloted or tried got rejected, or didn’t work, and I think there’s a very healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers’ unions and mayors and city councils that make those education decisions. I wish the U.S. school system was better for all kids.”
Notice that Melinda Gates seems to consider the role of government as merely a check on the education reforms the Gates Foundation chooses to launch. Although, a long time ago, organizations used to apply for grants from philanthropies to meet specific needs envisioned by the applicants, today venture philanthropists themselves imagine how they want to disrupt existing institutions—designing, starting up, implementing, and marketing new ideas. Then the foundation’s staff evaluates the projects according to the foundation’s specifications to see whether the foundation will choose to continue the projects. Melinda Gates is correct that citizens working with government have sometimes stopped a Gates project, but in education, for example, the process of protecting public schools from damage has sometimes taken years.
Melinda Gates talks around the problem but fails to recognize how her vision and experience—from a perch that the NY Times’ Nicholas Kulish, Rebecca R. Ruiz and David Gelles describe as the Gates’ 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, with a foundation staff of 1,600—may leave her unable to grasp the realities where all the rest of us live. The reporters characterize the foundation as working on an ever growing and massive to-do list and describe policy wrestling between Bill and Melinda, who both have personal priorities. Maybe as Bill and Melinda Gates divorce, they will pursue different priorities and give up on corporate, accountability-based school reform. We can only hope!
But it appears that not much has changed in the eleven years since, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explored venture philanthropy’s role in launching corporate school reform: “Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do. They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people… 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. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)