The world’s largest philanthropy has targeted education policymaking, sparking debate among education wonks and watchdogs over whether some of its activities cloak government actions and amount to lobbying.
“A lot of private foundations are making decisions that would normally be left up to a public institution that would be accountable to the taxpayers,” said Betty Peters, a member of Alabama’s state school board.
The three big education grant-makers are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Gates is by far the biggest. In total assets, Walton has $1.7 billion , Broad $2.2 billion , and Gates $37 billion , according to public documents.
Gates has steadily increased education grants, particularly for advocacy, said Sarah Reckhow, a political science professor at Michigan State University. That’s where 20 percent of its education grants went in 2010, she calculated , while money to schools dropped from 50 to 25 percent since 2005.
“Philanthropists, unlike teachers unions, they don’t have an obvious constituency,” she said. “Teachers unions represent teachers. Who does the Gates Foundation represent?”
Big Money Behind ‘Grassroots’
The Gates Foundation confirmed but did not return several calls and emails over three days requesting comment, but employees have publicly spoken on the topic. “Systemic changes” require political advocacy, Allan Golston, president of Gates’s U.S. program, told the New York Times in 2011. Gates funds myriad seemingly grassroots education groups, the Times article  noted.
A recent example was a January legislative hearing on the Common Core, an initiative defining K-12 tests and curriculum requirements in 46 states. Gates has spent $163 million to develop the Core and corresponding curriculum, and to get lawmakers and business leaders to support it. Twenty-six of the 32 people who testified against a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Core are members of organizations the Gates Foundation funds.
“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” but when states actually implement the Core its will likely add to Gates’ mixed policy track record, said Jay Greene, who runs the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform.
Mixed Track Record
Despite Gates money pushing education policies like Common Core, charter schools, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, Greene thinks the foundation follows political trends rather than establishing them.
The foundation failed to get test-tied teacher evaluations in Chicago and Los Angeles, despite burning piles of money, he noted.
“DC elites” already supported regulated school choice, teacher and school incentives, and data collection before Gates began putting money behind these policies, Greene said.
The foundation and U.S. Department of Education are together “push[ing] down into states and localities the consensus they have already arrived at,” he said.
Welcoming Community Input
Reckhow’s 2012 book, Follow the Money , suggests foundation grants are more effective when paired with grassroots activity rather than imposed by governments.
While he doesn’t mind Gates attempting to influence education policies, Kevin Welner says he is concerned about balancing its influence. Welner directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“I’d like others—particularly [in] the communities that are impacted by the most high-profile school policies—to have at least an equal voice to those from the outside,” he wrote in an email to School Reform News.
Gates funds Greene’s employer despite his “vocal criticism,” he noted.
Reckhow labels big education foundations a “shadow bureaucracy,” whose incubation of education initiatives cloaks the process from ordinary citizens. This is what bothers citizen activist Alisa Ellis.
Gates bankrolled the development of the Common Core through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), but because all three are nonprofits their policymaking happens in private meetings, the Utah mom noted. Citizens can’t find out who attends or makes decisions, or what information they take into account when doing so, as they can for state boards of education and legislatures.
Gates and federal funding make up the majority of CCSSO’s income, according to its two most recent financial statements.
Ellis said she appreciates that Gates posts its grants publicly online.
Looks ‘a Lot Like Lobbying’
It is common for foundations to fund both research and action, said Scott Thomas, dean of Claremont Graduate University’s education school. Thomas and Cassie Hall recently studied advocacy philanthropy in higher education.
“It’s the way [Gates is] doing it that we think is curious,” Thomas said. “It’s an intrusion into the public sphere more directly that has not been seen before. They’re jumping into the policy process itself. That’s an interesting position, for a nonprofit to be involved in things that look a lot like lobbying.”
He noted Gates’ financing for initiatives like the federal Race to the Top (RTT) grant competition and in creating “intermediate organizations” to carry out its mission: “Heavens, this is some pretty direct stuff.” Fourteen of 16 RTT-winning states received Gates funding for consultants to help write their applications for federal money. RTT grants also committed winning states to the Common Core before it was written.
“The Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the Puget Sound Business Journal  in 2009 after four Gates employees moved to the U.S. Department of Education. Two US DOE transfers from Gates received Obama administration waivers from its conflict of interest policy banning lobbyists from becoming high-ranking federal employees.
“Gates has a sort of magnetic force” to attract media attention, other donors, and politicians Reckhow said, noting “the single-mindedness with which they pursue an agenda.” Because of this, Gates priorities can “crowd out” others.
Money for Policy
The foundation has directly sponsored state departments of education and myriad groups who aim to influence policymakers. In 2012, it gave $1.9 million to the Kentucky Department of Education “to examine the use of high-quality curriculum to accelerate common core state standards implementation.” The Pennsylvania Business Roundtable got $257,391 “to educate Pennsylvania opinion leaders, policymakers, the media, and the public on Common Core State Standards and the Common State Assessment.” The Foundation for Excellence in Education received $151,068 “to complete a statewide communications campaign in Florida … on why there is a drop in school grades, why it is temporary, and how raising the bar on education standards leads to greater student success.”
For more examples of Gates’ influence on one education policy, view this spreadsheet  of all its grants related to the Common Core, which include development, money for states to put it in place, and messaging to target groups like politicians, teachers, and business leaders.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this article agreed Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation’s employees are, as Greene put it, “good people trying to do good things.” But that does not quell their concerns.
“I don’t think many people will quibble the good intentions of these foundations, but that they subvert the basic democratic processes designed to help encourage liberty and equality is what we should be concerned about,” Thomas said.
Edited to reflect a correction in the total Gates donations to Common Core activities since 1999. One item was double entered in the spreadsheet.
“‘Advocacy Philanthropy’ and the Public Policy Agenda: The Role of Modern Foundations in American Higher Education,” Cassie Hall and Scott Thomas, Claremont Graduate University, April 2012: http://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/Hall%20&%20Thomas%20AERA%202012%20-%20final.pdf .
“Philanthropy Gets in the Ring,” Frederick Hess, Phi Delta Kappan, April 24, 2012: http://aei.org/article/education/k-12/philanthropy-gets-in-the-ring/ .
“How the Gates Foundation Spins Its Research,” Jay Greene, January 7, 2012: http://jaypgreene.com/2012/01/07/how-the-gates-foundation-spins-its-research/ .
“Advocacy Philanthropy,” American Radioworks podcast with Cassie Hall and Scott Thomas, April 27, 2012: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/podcast.html#arw_5_36_philanthropies .
“Reckhow: Gates Shifts Strategy & Schools Get Smaller Share,” Sarah Reckhow, February 5, 2013: http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2013/02/shifting-strategies-at-gates-who-wins.html .
Image by IFPRI Images .