First off, bless Melinda and Bill Gates for being willing to give away money for world health and public education in the U.S. I applaud anyone who steps up to help. They are likely helping many people.
However, we all know, as citizens in a city where we have more than one billionaire, that while philanthropy is a great thing, these people giveth...and they taketh. The new mantra is "venture philanthropy" - they expect a return on their investment.
And why not? It's their money, right? Okay, sure, I get that. No one wants to throw their charitable dollars into a black hole. But, when you are talking about people who not only have a HUGE foundation as well as owning a HUGE corporation, then you are talking about a different kind of philanthropist. You are talking about people who are using their money and their power to bend and shape public policy.
At that point, it becomes troubling.
The New York Times ran a front page article on the Gates Foundation's educational wing this past Sunday. (bless them as well and I'll explain why in a minute). It is titled, "Behind Grass-Roots Advocacy, Bill Gates." It's about the octopus/spider/centipede arms' reach of the Gates Foundation. It's every direction, it's every kind of investment. They have that kind of money to throw around. Heck, they even give money to the national teachers' unions.
The article explains how Gates used to have one kind of focus for his education work (remember smaller schools). That didn't work out and so now:
His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies.
In some cases, 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, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.
Why should you worry? Because other people are. Because Mr. Gates was not hired, elected or appointed to shape public policy.
Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.
“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.
Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 “to influence the national education debates,” acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained. “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct,” he said. “There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.”
“Everybody’s implicated,” he added.
The Gates Foundation has been the push for the common core academic standards adopted by 45 states.
In 2009, a Gates-financed group, the New Teacher Project, issued an influential report detailing how existing evaluation systems tended to give high ratings to nearly all teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it repeatedly and wrote rules into the federal Race to the Top grant competition encouraging states to overhaul those systems.
In 2009, the foundation spent $3.5 million creating an advocacy group to buttress its $290 million investment in programs to increase teacher effectiveness in four areas of the country: Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles.
A document describing plans for the group, posted on a Washington Post blog in March, said it would mobilize local advocates, “establish strong ties to local journalists” and should “go toe to toe” with union officials in explaining contracts and state laws to the public.
But to avoid being labeled a “tool of the foundation,” the document said the group should “maintain a low public profile.”
When a foundation - or any group - tries to hide its efforts to shape public opinion via the public media, you should worry. If what Gates is doing is so good, he should not have to stoop to these levels.
I said bless the NY Times because so few media are willing to speak openly and honestly about the good, bad and the ugly of the Gates Foundation's education work. You certainly don't see that kind of honest reporting in the Puget Sound area and who can blame the local media? Gates has a long reach and is a powerful person. You probably don't want to make him unhappy with your coverage.
But Gates is a bit of a coward that way. He and his Foundation absolutely strong-arm off any attempts to question their motives, their work and how it is directed. I think he's very directed in that way.
It's interesting because in a recent article in the Seattle Times, Melinda Gates was interviewed. She said this:
"I think one of Bill's enormous gifts is that he can read a book on statistics ... and move to the human condition and say this is something perhaps the foundation could tackle," she said in a recent interview. "For me, I see the human condition on the ground, and I build up to the statistics."
It's funny because someone I know has met Gates many times and said if I ever get the chance to talk with Gates about public education that I should have stats at the ready as he loves data. Looking at what Mrs. Gates said, it would seem he was right.
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes - Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.