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Standards Opinion

Duncan: Bill Gates Has No Seat at the Education Policy Table

By Anthony Cody — January 24, 2014 3 min read
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Joiselle Cunningham and Lisa Clarke are Teaching Ambassador Fellows. That means they are teachers who have been relocated to Washington, DC, to work for the Department of Education for a year. Today they released a video in which they pose some questions to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These questions should be familiar to readers of this blog, as they have been asked many times over the past few years. I am providing some excerpts from this interview below, followed by my reaction.

Lisa Clarke:

One of the particular questions we've heard teachers ask is if corporate-based philanthropists are playing too heavy a role in public education, and if there's a corporate agenda at the Department.

Arne Duncan:

I think that's a very important question of what role does philanthropy or the corporate side have, and anyone who thinks that those who are major donors to education, or those giving a lot, have a seat at the table in terms of policymaking, nothing could be further from the truth.

Lisa Clarke:

When individual philanthropists like Bill Gates or Eli Broad give donations do they earn a seat at the table making decisions with you?

Arne Duncan:

I have tremendous respect for them and am thrilled that they have given -- lots of other places they could choose to put their dollars. The fact that they are trying to help education is a very positive thing. But no, it doesn't give them a seat at the table. You guys are at the table. But again, having people who have been successful come back and give back and be part of the solution is really important.

Lisa Clarke:

I know that organizations like the Gates Foundation are funding teacher and teacher leadership, so it's complicated. So one of the things that I'd like us to do is really engage with each other, to agree where we agree, find the places where we disagree, and move forward. I'd like to invite the viewers today to continue this conversation, and one of the ways we can do that is using the hashtag #AskArne.

As someone who has spent the past five years trying to get a straight answer from Secretary Duncan, I would have to agree with Lisa Clarke when she concludes that “it’s complicated.”

So let’s take a look at what Secretary Duncan is telling us. It actually boggles my mind that he would say that Bill Gates has no seat at the policy table. When someone says something that seems to be patently false, it invites inquiry into the truth.

In order to understand this, we must understand how education policy is actually being made, because clearly that is what is being hidden here.

Let’s take the Common Core, one of the projects that the Department of Education has been actively promoting for the past four years. How have philanthropists like Bill Gates influenced the creation and advance of this project, and worked hand in hand with the Department of Education to make sure it succeeds?

Step One. Speaking to the National Council of State Legislators in 2009, Bill Gates elucidates his vision for the Common Core:

In terms of standards, the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative is developing clear, rigorous standards that will match the best in the world.

 Last month 46 governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to embrace those standards. This is encouraging. Identifying Common Standards is just the starting point. We'll only know if this effort has succeeded, when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.

 Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests. This assessment align to the Common Core when the tests are aligned to the Common Standards, the curriculum will be aligned as well

 It will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time there will be a large uniform base of customers.

Step Two: The Gates Foundation funds the non-profits that draft the Common Core standards, and gives money to non-profits called the National Governor’s Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers so that they will get 45 governors to agree to have their states “adopt” the Common Core in place of existing academic standards. This process, in spite of loud claims to the contrary, was not led by teachers.

Step Three. The Department of Education, which was forbidden by law from doing Step Two itself, uses stimulus funds to offer states Race to the Top grants, in a competitive process, in which points are awarded to states that have adopted “college and career ready standards,” the Common Core being the most readily available such standards. The Memorandum of Understanding that state school officers were asked to sign states:

...the federal government can provide key financial support for this effort in developing a common core of state standards and in moving toward common assessments, such as through the Race to the Top Fund authorized in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Further, the federal government can incentivize this effort through a range of tiered incentives, such as providing states with greater flexibility in the use of existing federal funds, supporting a revised state accountability structure, and offering financial support for states to effectively implement the standards.

Step Four: The Gates Foundation offered assistance to states in filling out the complex Race to the Top applications, but only if the states agreed to the following:

Has your state signed the MOA regarding the Common Core Standards currently being developed by NGA/CCSSO? [Answer must be "yes"]

Step Five: The Gates Foundation continues to pour millions of dollars into advocacy and “think tank” organizations, including the national PTA, teacher unions, and more, purchasing their active support in waging a robust public relations campaign to convince everyone that there is widespread support for the Common Core.

Meanwhile Arne Duncan acts as if none of this has any impact. As if teachers have a larger say in education policy than Bill Gates, who is just offering a helpful hand with no strings attached. This is not just a seat at the table. The Gates Foundation has set the table, and decided on the menu. The people seated at whatever table the Department of Education produces for photo oppurtunities or interviews such as this are not the real decision-makers.

I am not sure what good it does to #AskArne anything when we get nonsense like this in response.

Update, Jan. 25, 2014, 11 am EST: If you DO wish to ask Arne Duncan a question, you can leave your comments on the video where it is posted on the Department of Ed webiste here.

Or if you are on Twitter, you can tweet your questions to the hashtag #AskArne.

What do you think? Does Arne Duncan have any credibility when he says that Bill Gates has no seat at the education policy table?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.