Standards Opinion

The Gates Foundation’s Education Philanthropy: Are Profit Seeking and Market Domination a Public Service?

By Anthony Cody — July 13, 2012 7 min read
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Guest post by Chemtchr.

Part Two of Two. See Part One here.

The Gates Foundation favors a charitable model known as a public-private partnership, which appears at first to be an enlightened model for corporate engagement. For-profit ventures are “partnered” with the government for funding, to drive positive social change.

The problem is that apparent charities are actually spending public funds, often without our knowledge or consent, and public private partnerships in education have shown themselves to be vulnerable to outright fraud as well as wasteful insider dealing. There’s no open or democratic mechanism to determine public benefit, or regulation to protect public education funding from financial pillage for services it doesn’t want or need.

Some for-profit corporations directly set up their own non-profit intermediary to divert government funding. For example, the Pearson Education Foundation is a philanthropy which is under investigation for its work as an intermediary on behalf of its parent corporation, global giant Pearson Education, whose 2010 US sales totaled £2.6 billion (British pounds).

In April 2011, the Gates Foundation announced a partnership with the Pearson Foundation to produce resources for its Common Core State Standards project, and Pearson simultaneously announced it was developing a complete digital curriculum to support the proposed standards. The alliance was described in this NY Times story, Foundations Join to Offer Online Courses for Schools.

Microsoft also unveiled its own $15 million research and development effort for “Next Generation” products, aligned to the new standards. Possible return on that investment is staggering, and almost every feature of the Gates Foundation’s program will create a dramatically favorable business climate for the data industry.

The conservative Heartland Institute puts the cost of implementing the Common Core program at $30 billion dollars, whereas the conservative Fordham Institute, heavily funded by the Gates Foundation, argues for a range of lower possible costs. States face a confusing legal mandate to fund a voluntary national program they don’t remember volunteering for. This might not be a public service.

We have to confront the likelihood that the Pearson Foundation is actually representing the profit-seeking interests of the Pearson Corporation.

Is the Gates Foundation, to an unknowable extent, locking down control of a government-mandated multi-billion dollar marketing opportunity for Microsoft and other allies?

Political Leverage Cuts across All Four Sectors, to Divert Public Funds

The Gates Foundation’s Education program expends 20% of its funds for advocacy, which turns out to include support for artificial grass-roots organizations that can be used to sway local policy, according to the New York Times and the Seattle Times. Local political leverage helps to prepare the ground in different cities for specific Gates Foundation projects that tie into its vision of national standards and data-based accountability driven by entrepreneurial technological innovation.

For example, through its Next Generation Learning partnership, the Foundation is promoting technology to develop innovative learning models and personalized educational pathways.
One typical $500,000 Next Generation political grant was awarded to non-profit intermediary CEE-Trust, to “develop opportunities for entrepreneurs to launch or incubate new next gen schools and programs in CEE-Trust member cities.”

Opportunities for entrepreneurs have to include easy access to public funds, so the Gates Foundation contributed $4 million dollars to preserve friendly Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s control of New York City’s public schools. It also recognized the New York mayor’s successful reform efforts in its grants to US cities, and congratulated New York for its great progress under Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein’s boast that his “tough medicine” had raised scores in the New York public schools was exposed as data manipulation, but his data-friendly legacy of entrenched entrepreneurial for-profit rating services lives on.

A Legislatively Mandated Doctrine of Accountability that Defies All Research

Unlike the government sector, philanthropy has no means to force anyone’s participation. Democratic oversight of voluntary charities is unnecessary and unconstitutional, because they have no way to enforce monetary contributions or compliance; but government partnership changes all that.

Participation and compliance in standards-based and data-driven education reform isn’t voluntary for Americans, especially for American children. They are already held accountable to corporate education’s assessments by force of law, sometimes at great cost to their individual welfare. The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act imposed an accountability and testing regime which is so unpopular now that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it “a slow motion train wreck”. Duncan offers administrative waivers from the law’s actual provisions, but only to states that meet his own even more encompassing requirements for data-driven accountability regulations.

In spite of growing public resistance, the Gates Foundation has vowed to continue its fight to impose mandated national standards and tests. It has added data-driven teacher ranking to its program, based on statistical Value-Added Metrics (VAM), all with no demonstrated public benefit or democratic mandate.

Studies at UC Berkeley have refuted the Gates Foundation’s claims for its metrics, as has Mathematica Institute’s own study. Notwithstanding this, the Foundation has continued its legislative campaigns in individual states, to force immediate imposition and implementation of its discredited ranking systems.

Ironically, this past week has seen serious self-examination by the business world of Microsoft’s own “stack ranking” in its competitive employee evaluation system, which is credited with destroying innovation and productivity in Microsoft’s stagnant engineering department for the past decade.

Public disclosure by Common Cause that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) engages in a massive state government lobbying system caused widespread revulsion, and exposed the Gates Foundation’s five year grant to “educate (legislators) on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement” The Foundation is an active, tax-exempt lobbyist in both the legislative and executive branches, at every level.

Regulatory Capture and Institutionalized Conflict of Interest

The Obama administration has been granted over 30 waivers from the conflict-of-interest ethics pledge set forth in its Executive Order 12490. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden described the entrenched Gates Foundation influence within the United States Department of Education in his Business Week story of July 15, 2010.

Today, the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Duncan move in apparent lockstep. Two of Duncan's top aides, Chief of Staff Margot Rogers and Assistant Deputy Secretary James H. Shelton III, came from the foundation and were granted waivers by the Administration from its revolving-door policy limiting involvement with former employers. Vicki Phillips, who heads the foundation's education programs, and Duncan participated from 2004 to 2007 in the Urban Superintendents Network, a group of a dozen school leaders who met twice a year at weekend retreats co-funded by Gates.
When the federal government made $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top awards available--favoring applicants that agree to link teacher pay to test score gains, increase the number of charter schools, and adopt common curriculum standards--the Gates Foundation paid for consultants to prepare applications for 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

~Daniel Golden, Bill Gates' School Crusade

The Foundation’s assistance to states in pursuing the US government’s Race to the Top money was contingent on applicants’ imposition of a list of requirements on their own states, which would effectively assure the Foundation’s future domination of the state’s public education system. The first question on the Gates Foundation qualifying criteria questionnaire is, “Has your state signed the MOA regarding the Common Core Standards currently being developed by NGA/CCSSO? [Answer must be “yes”]”

This article by Joanne Weiss, Duncan’s current Chief of Staff at the US Department of Education, contradicts the DOE’s frequent assertions that the Common Core is a voluntary state-level initiative, and reveals its real purpose:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.
~Joanne Weiss, The Innovation Mismatch: "Smart Capital" and Education Innovation

Citizens of 44 states don’t know whether, when, or how their own state agreed to the imposition of the voluntary Common Core State Standards. What is an MOA, and does it have the force of law? Exactly who signed it? Has the Core already been adopted in my state, or not? The preemptive shuffling of MOAs was a smart backroom steamroller tactic, but leverage is an unacceptable substitute for transparent democratic governance on such a momentous decision.

The Pioneer Institute is a very conservative organization, which I can’t claim to understand. It decisively opposes the imposition of the Common Core in this detailed analysis. I would welcome public discussion of their objections, but I know of no democratic forum where the question might even be raised.

Whether the steamroller is for our own good or in the self-interest of wealthy philanthropists can be debated. But, from all our differing perspectives, we have to call on our democratic authority to put the brakes on this politically leveraged, extralegally mandated imposition of the Gates Foundation’s agenda. We, the American people, all share the right and the duty to judge our education policy for ourselves.

My thanks to education activist Susan Ohanian, without whose links this effort wouldn’t have been possible.

What do you think? Is the Gates Foundation’s philanthropy shifting control of our schools away from the public? Are there conflicts of interest at work?

Chemtchr teaches science and advises a student service club at a public high school in a diverse low-income community. She is a graduate of the University of California-Santa Cruz and Montana State University-Bozeman, and has taught in urban community-based programs and at a tribal college, as well as in public districts. She’s active in Citizens for Public Schools, and in local and state councils.

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.