By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
As government continues to take funding away from public education, schools increasingly put themselves in the hands of private foundations. It begs the question: Is society abdicating control of public education and embarking on a dangerous path?
Corporate foundations have been fighting for control of public schools for years in Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego (see accompanying stories). Billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family and Eli Broad have quietly risen to power at both the state and federal levels, although their huge effect on education mandates and legislation is not yet on the radar screen of most people.
"The influence of these corporate foundations on schools is at the root of many of the problems we're confronting today in public education," observes CTA President David A. Sanchez. "Race to the Top is a prime example, as they try to bribe states to accept onetime dollars in exchange for sweeping policy changes. Strings are attached to federal funding in a way we've never seen before - and at a time when our schools need more help than ever."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent millions of dollars this year to influence the way the federal government distributed $5 billion in grants to "reform" public schools in Race to the Top (RTTT). The foundation offered $250,000 to help states hire consultants to apply for RTTT money - but only if they embraced the same goals as the Gates Foundation: paying teachers based on student test scores; opening up charters that operate independently of local school boards; and agreeing to a common set of standards in every state.
In Round 1 of RTTT, 37 states applied. Gates offered assistance to 15 handpicked states; 10 of them, including Tennessee, were among the 16 finalists in Round 1. One Washington Post columnist compared their 30-minute presentations and Q&A sessions to the voting on the popular TV show Project Runway. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan found only two states - Tennessee and Delaware, states that worked with teachers on the application - deserving of money. The rest went home empty-handed.
California didn't make it to the finalists, but was so desperate for RTTT money that legislators changed three laws they believed would increase eligibility. One removes a "statewide firewall" prohibiting the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. The second was an open-enrollment measure that allows students in the lowest-performing schools to apply to other schools anywhere in the state, including in their own district. The third was a "parent trigger" provision, whereby 50 percent of the parents in a low-performing school could force districts to adopt a major reform plan, such as closing the school, firing the principal and up to half the teachers, or turning it into a charter.
"California didn't get any money, and now we are stuck with these bad laws and are struggling with how to implement them," says Sanchez.
California and most other states without Gates backing didn't fare much better in Round 2 of RTTT. According to Education Week, nine of the 12 winning applicants from a field of 47 states over two rounds of the RTTT competition were backed by Gates and given $250,000 apiece to craft proposals that were in "good strategic alignment" with the foundation on key issues such as supporting charter school expansion and evaluating and compensating teachers based on test scores.
"The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates," states an Associated Press news analysis. However, it's not a laughing matter; Duncan's inner circle includes several individuals closely aligned with the Gates and Broad foundations.
Gates has denied that his foundation is a "partner" in the RTTT program but has this to say: "We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race to the Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think."
The U.S. shouldn't be experimenting on American children. They deserve proven reforms.
Experiments gone awry
In 2000, the Gates Foundation decided that small schools were the answer to boosting graduation rates, so Gates pumped about $2 billion into a campaign to restructure American high schools. This included 45 states and founding 2,600 schools with fewer than 400 students. Some of the schools were newly created and others were the result of dividing large, comprehensive high schools into smaller ones.
"Although foundation officials regularly claimed that their decision to support small schools was based on research, most of the research available at that time was written by advocates of small schools, so the foundation had no warning signs of the difficulties it would encounter in pursuing its agenda," writes Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education, in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
"The foundation seemed unaware of the disadvantages of small high schools, that is, schools with fewer than 400 students," writes Ravitch. "Because of their size, they seldom have enough students or teachers to offer advanced courses in mathematics and science electives, advanced placement courses, career and technical education, choir, band, sports teams and other programs that many teenagers want. Nor can most offer adequate support for English-language learners or students with special needs."
Gates admitted in 2009, "Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way." Meanwhile, many school districts today are dealing with the fallout from Gates' failed experiments - including those in Oakland, San Diego, Sacramento and other areas.
Having given up on small schools, Gates set his sights on charter schools and, according to Ravitch, has supplied nearly $100 million since 2000 to charter management organizations such as New Schools Venture Fund.
In 2008, after changing course, Gates announced that in addition to funding charters, he planned to invest millions in performance-based pay programs for teachers, creating data systems, promoting national standards and tests, and finding ways for school districts to fire "ineffective" teachers. This put him on the same page as billionaire Eli Broad, who is also devoted to charters, merit pay for teachers, and the belief that schools should function as businesses - a philosophy also shared by the Walton family, of Wal-Mart stores.
The Obama administration and Duncan have embraced this philosophy, and Ravitch worries this will impact the future of education in America. Charters, she asserts, are creating a two-tiered system in urban districts, with charter schools for motivated students and public schools for the rest. They drain money from existing schools and cause teacher burnout. And judging teachers solely on test scores and paying them accordingly is unfair to both teachers and students, Ravitch asserts.
While there are some outstanding charter schools, they are no magic bullet for success. The majority of the 5,000 or so charters nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Notes the New York Times, "Last year, one of the most comprehensive studies by researchers from Stanford University found fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were significantly worse."
Ravitch warns that the real agenda for corporate foundations and the "billionaire boys" behind them is the deregulation of schools, much like the deregulation of energy companies and health care.
"Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of our national economy in 2008, and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children," she says. "Removing public oversight will leave the education of our children to the whim of entrepreneurs and financiers."
Foundations gaining momentum
Corporate foundations have gone from playing a supportive role in education to dictating unproven school "reforms." The power they wield is growing.
Richard Rothstein, author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, noted in a New York Times article that corporate donations may be acts of generosity, but also benefit the wealthy. Using a formula developed by Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, Rothstein estimates the government loses about $4 in taxes for every $10 a philanthropist donates.
If a corporation can afford to give money to a school district, it can afford to be taxed, asserts Joel Spring, author of American School: From the Puritans to No Child Left Behind. "However, most of the time foundation money is presented with a public relations spin, so people see it in a positive light."
Foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they are accountable to no one. They do not have to disclose the details of their spending, although the government does.
"It's anti-democratic to relinquish control of public education to private foundations in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters," says Sanchez.
Operating schools as businesses may sound good on paper - but students are not widgets and schools aren't expected to turn a profit.
"The corporate model of reform pays little heed to other expectations of public schools - building just and tolerant communities, reducing distrust of one another and our shared institutions, safeguarding democratic ethics and introducing children to the world," warns Dorothy Shipps in an article titled "Corporate Influence." "Neither markets nor business ethics routinely put equality or fairness above profits."
Gates, Broad and the Walton family are not "experts" in education. They may be acting in the name of "school reform," but they are pushing their own agendas and programs based on ideology rather than research.
"The judgment of donors is sometimes wiser than that of school officials and sometimes not," says Rothstein. "But it is hard to separate good ideas from foundation proposals that, while seemingly attractive, may be passing fads or only a way to advertise a donor's virtue."
Instead of being scrutinized, corporate foundations are given deferential, "gentle" treatment by the media, who fear taking them on. They operate, says Ravitch, in a "conspiracy of silence."
"I don't think the public is aware of their influence on federal public policy for education," says Sanchez. "We need to make the public aware of the influence of large corporations on policy-making at the state and national education levels. And CTA will continue to put pressure on both Arne Duncan and our legislators to keep them from further eroding all the good things that are going on in schools today. To do this, we have to stop accepting money with strings attached."
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) was defeated in her bid for state superintendent of public instruction, despite being backed in the primary by Eli Broad, Netflicks founder Reed Hastings and other charter advocates affiliated with foundations. Romero was the driving force in passing flawed legislation that was supposed to make California's schools eligible to receive RTTT funding. In the June elections, the public sent a clear message: All of our schools and communities deserve quality, affordable education and should not have to compete for those rights.
According to Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag, foundations are cutting back on their donations in California because of what they describe as a lack of leadership. However, foundations are still pouring millions into efforts to further their political agenda.
If there's any silver lining to the role foundations play in public education, says Schrag, its calling attention to the government's inadequate funding of public education.
"Maybe a few more whacks from people with big clubs and deep pockets will ultimately wake us up," says Schrag.
Who's pulling the strings?
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has provided nearly $400 million to school districts to open charter schools, implement unreasonable accountability measures, train superintendents in top-down management styles, and pay for the salaries of Broad associates working in school districts. Billionaire Eli Broad has also backed anti-union candidates in school board and state election races. He is the 42nd-richest person in the world, according to Forbes, and is a retired homebuilder and life insurance magnate.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given over $1 billion to education and is chaired by Bill Gates of Microsoft and his wife, Melinda. Gates' tactics as founder of Microsoft have been called anti-competitive, but he has encouraged competitive tactics among schools in promoting Race to the Top applications and legislation. After his grants funding small schools proved ineffective, Gates set his sights on funding charters, implementing performance-based teacher pay programs, and firing "bad" teachers. Bill Gates was the world's wealthiest man from 1995 to 2009, excluding 2008 when he ranked third.
The Walton Family Foundation is focused on "reforming" the country's public education system by pumping money into school vouchers and charter schools. Since the late 1990s, the Waltons have been at the forefront of the charter school movement. Over the years, they have given hundreds of millions of dollars to various charter schools and ally organizations around the country. The Waltons are the founders of the ubiquitous Wal-Mart stores.
Running schools like a business doesn't work
Based on the belief that schools should be run as a business, billionaire Eli Broad has spent millions to train school administrators who have no experience in public education. The results have been disastrous for some Broad-trained leaders, causing disruptions in communities. A few examples:
- Deborah Sims, superintendent of the Antioch School District, was asked to resign in 2009 due to her top-down, abrasive style of management, in a campaign led by outraged members of the Antioch Education Association.
- In March 2009, the Capistrano School District terminated its superintendent, Arnold Woodrow Carter, for "material breach."
- In San Diego, Alan Bersin served as superintendent before being ousted by the San Diego Education Association and the community.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's ties to CORPORATE foundations
- Margot Rogers, Duncan's former chief of staff, served as the special assistant to the director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She resigned in June.
- Jim Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, manages the department's "competitive teacher quality," school choice and learning technology programs. He was a program director for the education division of the Gates Foundation.
- Joanne Weiss, director, Race to the Top, oversaw research and operations of the New Schools Venture Funds before joining the White House. That pro-charter school group is backed by the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart), and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund (Gap stores), among others.
- Russlynn H. Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, served as an assistant director of policy and research at the Broad Foundation, for which she was also on loan as chief of staff to the president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.
- Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, oversaw grants from the Annenberg Foundation and implemented schoolwide accountability reform in 15 Los Angeles County school districts.
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