Gates Foundation, Policy and the Great American Education-Industrial Complex!!

Dear Commons Community,

The NY Times has an article on the Gates Foundation and its focus on overhauling the country’s education policies.   One of its objectives is to advocate for alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.   To accomplish its ends:

“ Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years…the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy. “

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

If readers are interested in this subject, I would recommend Diane Ravitch’s book,  The Death and Life of the Great American School System, specifically Chapter Ten, entitled the Billionaires Boys Club.   It details among other things how Bill Gates (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Eli Broad (through the Broad Foundation), and the Walton (Wal-Mart) families (through the Walton Family Fund) dictate educational policy via “philanthrophy.”  Ms. Ravitch gave a speech on this topic at the NEA in 2010.

Another good piece entitled How Billionaire Donors Harm Public Education, by Valerie Strauss appeared in The Washington Post in October 2010.

In sum, the  “Great American Educational-Industrial Complex” is alive, rich and getting stronger.



  1. “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” is a passionate defense of our nation’s public schools, a national treasure that Dr. Ravitch believes is “intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life.” She issues a warning against handing over educational policy decisions to private interests, and criticizes misguided government policies that have done more harm than good.

    Ideas such as choice, utilizing a “business model” structure, accountability based on standardized tests and others, some favored by the left, others by the right are deemed as less, often much less, than advertised. Dr. Ravitch doesn’t oppose charters, but rather feels that the structure itself doesn’t mandate success. As in conventional schools, there will be good ones and bad ones. But charters must not be allowed to cream off the best students, or avoid taking the most troubled, as has been alleged here in New York City.

    Her main point, however, is broader. “It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing educational policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations,” Dr. Ravitch notes. She suggests that there is “something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public educational policy to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.” However well intended the effort, the results, in her telling, have not been impressive, in some cases doing more harm than good.

    These foundations are beyond the reach of the voters’ will, and they themselves, “are accountable to no one,” Dr. Ravitch writes. “If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” Dr. Ravitch questions why we’re allowing the relatively small financial contributions made by the foundations, dwarfed by the hundreds of billions America spends on public education, to leverage the entire investment? And she asks who, when there is no accountability, will take the fall if things go horribly wrong?