Melinda Gates and the Blindness of Privilege

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an interview—David Marchese talking with Melinda Gates—about the enormous power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for shaping our lives.  Marchese asks Ms. Gates directly about the Gates Foundation’s role in driving today’s neoliberal public education policy. Doesn’t a giant foundation—“Its endowment at $50.7 billion… the largest in the world.”—have an outsized impact on social policy? “What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic?  You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism?”

Ms. Gates cheerfully counters his critique: “Bill and I always go back to ‘What is philanthropy’s role?’ It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success.  But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things.”

Despite Melinda Gates’ protestations, as we look back, we can see that when the Gates Foundation has experimented with with reforming institutions like public schools, there have been no real consequences for Bill and Melinda and their staff at the Foundation when projects have failed. In the history of the Foundation’s projects with America’s public schools, however, there are many examples of negative consequences for the schools, our communities, and our children.  Here are two.

The first is local—situated in metropolitan Tampa, Florida.  In 2009, The Gates Foundation made a $100 million grant to the Hillsborough County School District in Florida.  The money was to pay for  a huge experiment in merit pay for teachers. Then in 2015, the Gates Foundation deemed the experiment a failure and walked away, leaving the school district to cover millions of dollars of sunk costs and the responsibility for undoing the damage. According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave. Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations. A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year. The total scores now factor into teacher pay.” Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The second example of a Gates experiment gone wrong continues to affect all of us across the United States.  It is embedded in the policies Arne Duncan forced states to enact into law in order to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was involved in every level of the development of test-and-punish school accountability. In a stunning expose for Dissent Magazine back in 2011, Joanne Barkan traces the evolution and outsized impact of a Gates Foundation project which upended public policy at the local level in Chicago and subsequently created the framework for Arne Duncan’s policies at the U.S. Department of Education. The new project replaced an earlier Gates experiment to break large high schools into small schools.  The Gates Foundation had given up on the small schools initiative, but, as Barkan writes: “No matter. The power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere). To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.  He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007.  Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and a ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

In her groundbreaking 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores the role of the Gates Foundation and today’s other venture philanthropies in the development of corporate school reform: “Foundations exist to enable extremely wealthy people to shelter a portion of their capital from taxation, and then to use the money for socially beneficial purposes… 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. Education has often been high on their agendas… 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. 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)

Philanthropic dollars these days shape public policy in myriad ways, and the consequences are rarely neutral. A profound new book by Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, is the best refutation I know of Melinda Gates’ rather theoretical defense in last Sunday’s NY Times of philanthropic experimentation with education policy.

Ewing describes in wrenching detail the experience for parents, children, grandparents and teachers of what happened several years after the Gates Foundation underwrote Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 experiment.  In May of 2013, after the vast expansion of charter schools, Rahm Emanuel’s administration shut down 50 traditional Chicago public schools—schools said to have failed their turnarounds and become underutilized. Over 80 percent of the students in the schools eventually shut down were African American. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research independently confirms Ewing’s finding of overwhelming community grieving across the areas where so many of the schools were closed.

The philanthropic model—experiments with turnarounds and merit pay—experiments with opening and closing schools and shuffling children from one school to another—misses the role of institutions like public schools in the lives of families, neighborhoods, and entire communities.  Ewing urges policy makers to ask a very different set of questions:  “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

What the Public Thinks vs. What the Media Says about Public School Reform

In a short, readable reflection,  Going the Wrong Way?  What the Public Says about Education ReformBill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, former Vermont school superintendent, and educational researcher, explores the disconnect between the state of public education reform and the concerns of the public.  His reflection was written to mark the beginning of the school year and the recent release of the 45th Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Mathis declares, “A couple of findings jump out: Most people have not heard of many of the nation’s biggest reform efforts and when they have, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the top-down, test-driven market-model orientation of these initiatives.”  He surmises that perhaps one reason most people have never heard of the Common Core Standards much discussed among policy experts is “because they were developed outside of the normal governmental oversight.”

He reports that the public has soured on mandated standardized tests, that most parents are pleased with their own child’s school, and that “the public sees the greatest problem is the lack of financial support—the number one concern for the last 45 years.”  According to Mathis, “This view is supported by the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where educational spending on needy children is lower than for other children.”

As a companion piece to Mathis’ article, you may also want to read Anthony Cody’s concerns: Education Nation, 2013: Will NBC News Use the Gates Foundation’s Facts Again? Or Can We Get a Real Dialogue Going?  He wonders whether this year, in the fourth edition of NBC’s Education Nation series (set to air between October 6 and October 8) we can expect objective news coverage or whether the sponsor’s biases will again provide the framework for the programming.

Anthony Cody is a former public school science teacher in Oakland, California and now a blogger at Teacher Magazine and advocate for supporting public school teachers and improving public schools.

The Education Nation series on NBC has been sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has in the past portrayed Gates Foundation’s priorities as if they are the news.  Cody reminds us that, “Two years ago, Brian Williams opened Education Nation‘s Teacher Town Hall event with an interview with Melinda Gates, saying: ‘Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world.  It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.'”

Reading Mathis’ and Cody’s reflections together exposes the role of money these days in developing and promoting public education policy and at least part of the disconnect Mathis describes between the priorities of the public and the reality of the politics.

Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  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 should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”