Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Lawmakers Begin to Connect the Dots Between Gates and Common Core

By Anthony Cody — August 30, 2013 5 min read
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Common Core proponents are mounting a full court press in a belated recognition that their testing juggernaut is running into some serious obstacles around the country. Former TFA CEO Wendy Kopp shared her opinion today that the Common Core test results are a “welcome wake-up call” that will "...finally give families an accurate barometer of whether our kids are mastering the skills they need to succeed in a knowledge-based global economy, early enough that we can intervene.”

Meanwhile New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said yesterday that “there has to be a death penalty for failing schools, so to speak,” making it clear that the dismal test scores will continue to be used to decimate schools in high poverty neighborhoods.

But some lawmakers have begun to connect the dots between the Common Core and the various people singing its praises. In Michigan, here is what representative Tom McMillin had to say two days ago, in response to testimony from Chester Finn, of the Fordham Institute, which can be counted among the architects of test-driven reform.

At around minute 26, McMillin points out that Chester Finn’s colleague at the Fordham Institute, Michael Petrilli, had stated that after Arne Duncan hired four Gates Foundation staffers to high level positions in the Department of Education, “the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education.” Finn said he disagreed, however he acknowledged that “the Gates Foundation paid for the development of the Common Core standards. There’s no disputing that.”

McMillin responded:

And they also paid $6 million to Fordham (Institute) and then you guys evaluate the Common Core standards and decide if they're any good or not. Don't you see a real conflict there, when Fordham gets $6 million, and then they're told to turn around and say Gates' project is a great thing?

Finn: I have no idea where you got the $6 million figure from.

McMillin: From the Gates Foundation web site.


Approximately three times too large in terms of any actual receipts that Fordham has gotten. We are evaluating the implementation of Common Core standards with Gates dollars, and that's in the early stages 'cause implementation is only just beginning. The Gates Foundation had nothing whatsoever to do with our original 2010 evaluation of the standards themselves. We were not receiving any funds from Gates for that purpose at that time. Anybody that knows me and the Fordham track record knows we are not influenced by our funders.

NOTE: Since I posted this yesterday, it has come to my attention that the 2010 report that Chester Finn refers to above, available here, carries this acknowledgement on page 5:

Generous support for this massive undertaking came from four sources: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louis Calder Foundation, The Brookhill Foundation, and our own sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. We are grateful to one and all.

Was Chester Finn inaccurate in his statement above?

Let’s interrogate this a bit. According to an accounting prepared by Mercedes Schneider, the Fordham Foundation has received $1,961,116 to promote the Common Core.

So Chester Finn may be correct in his estimation of how much they have been paid for that specific purpose. However, a look at Schneider’s more comprehensive analysis of funding reveals a long term investment by Gates in the Fordham Institute, beginning back in 2003. The total amount Fordham has received from the Gates Foundation over the past decade is actually $6,711,462, including a million dollars just this year for “operating expenses,” which presumably would include Chester Finn’s salary.

Chester Finn may indeed believe everything he says about Common Core without regard to his sponsorship by the Gates Foundation. But that sponsorship creates a real conflict of interest, and his organization cannot be considered a legitimate source of independent expertise on matters such as the Common Core.

This is the first time I have seen legislators calling attention to the blatant conflict of interest inherent in “think tanks” posing as neutral experts on issues like Common Core, while receiving significant funding from the same corporate foundations sponsoring the projects.

In Boston, corporate reform dollars also seem to be raising some problems for candidates. Mayoral candidate John Connolly last week asked Stand For Children to cancel their plan to spend $500,000 in support of his candidacy. Although he had sought their support, he apparently thought better of it when he saw the reaction from voters. He also asked Democrats for Education Reform to stop spending money on his behalf.

Both voters and legislators seem to be slowly waking up to the well-financed “reform” operation that is in motion across the country. If a political candidate turns down a half million dollar donation, that money must be toxic indeed.

The hard work of activists and educators across the country has begun to pay off. Public perceptions are shifting. The recent PDK/Gallup poll showed that public support for the use of test scores for teacher evaluation has fallen from 52% to 41% in just one year. Fewer than 25% believe that more student testing has led to better public schools. It also showed that most Americans are unaware of the Common Core. They are going to be learning about them more, as the assessments roll out, with the predicted disastrous results.

This is the key moment of vulnerability for this entire accountability regime. If the public is willing to accept that 70% of our students deserve to be considered failures, and thousands more schools deserve the “death penalty” for the low scores they will be getting, then public education will continue to decline. If the public realizes, however, that students are getting MORE tests, and teachers are getting even more pressure to teach to the tests, and none of this is really improving the quality of education, then the tide will turn.

We can anticipate an increase in the rhetoric from corporate reformers, who will express ever more “urgency” that their increasingly destructive policies be implemented. But this song is so similar to the tune played for NCLB, the public has begun to recognize the tired melody. It is time to unplug that jukebox for good, and allow teachers and students the freedom to make their own music, without the payola playlist from the Gates Foundation and their representatives.

It should be noted that Education Week also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.

Note: I have written previously on these issues related to funding and policy:

Is InBloom Enthusiasm Inspired by Gates Grants?

Yes, Virginia, There Really Is a Billionaire Boys Club

Can We Exorcize “Evil” From the Education Reform Debate?

Payola Policy: NCTQ Prepares its Hit on Schools of Education

Cui Bono: The Question Rarely Asked, Let Alone Investigated

TeachPlus: Astroturf in Indiana

Jonah Edelman Reveals Corporate Education “Reform” at Work in Illinois

What do you think? Are lawmakers and the public becoming more aware of the way big money is influencing education policy?

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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.