This Washington

Local Education Activists Receive Gates Grant

By Josh Feit May 23, 2011

The New York Times had a blockbuster front-page story on Sunday—"Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates"—showing much of the research that's done on education reform and cited by education reformers such as No. 1 education reformer Arne Duncan, is funded by the Gates Foundation.

The foundation, the NYT notes, spent $78 million on advocacy in 2009, the most recent year that's been reported. [pullquote]Education lobbyists Stand for Children got a $330,000 grant from the Gates Foundation this year.[/pullquote]

PubliCola has learned that Stand for Children, a frontlines lobbying group in the local fight over education standards, got a big Gates grant in 2011.

First, for some context, here's the New York Times story:
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.

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. Then a string of Gates-backed nonprofit groups worked to promote legislation across the country: at least 20 states, including New York, are now designing new evaluation systems.

While the foundation has given money to both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, totaling about $6.3 million over the last three years, some of its newer initiatives appear aimed at challenging the dominance that unions have exercised during policy debates. Last year, Mr. Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which demonized Randi Weingarten, the president of the federation.

The Gates Foundation are big backers of controversial Duncan-style reforms such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, charter schools, and most recently, tying teacher layoff decisions to teacher evaluations—as opposed to seniority.

That last issue has been a hot button issue in this year's legislature; Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue) pushed a bill that would have trumped union rules and prioritized teachers who did poorly on evaluations for reduction in force (RIF) layoffs.

One of the big advocates of Tom's bill (and for other reforms such as tying teacher evaluations to student scores) is Stand for Children. SFC, with a $1.4 million operating budget,  got a $330,000 grant from the Gates Foundation this year. As we reported earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's wife, Connie, was a top contributor to Stand For Children's local political committee this year, donating $25,000.

SFC director Shannon Campion says conspiracies about Gates are off point, telling PubliCola:
None of our donors dictates our work. While the notion of foundations dictating the work of non-profits is worthy of discussion by the media, the idea of a billionaires' conspiracy feels like a distraction from the urgent matter at hand, which is 'what are we doing to help kids get an education that prepares them for productive lives?’ For the most part, our donors fund our ideas, and not the other way around.

Campion also points out, accurately, that the Gates Foundation contributed $6.3 million over the last three years to the country's big teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—adversaries of the Duncan-style reformers.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the the Washington Education Association, the local teachers' union (which has been at odds with SFC over education issues), tells PubliCola: "Much of the heat in the current debate around education reform appears to be fueled by well-funded outside interest groups. WEA fully supports genuine dialogue focused on how best to strengthen our schools for the long-term.  This means engaging educators."
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