The Gates Foundation: Outsized Player in Education?

The Washington Post describes some of the work done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in education. It notes that the foundation is advocating many of the key reforms in education today, including smaller schools, charter schools, and teacher evaluation.

One question that runs throughout the article is whether the foundation has too much influence. Certainly it’s got money to hand out, and it does push the envelope of what political leaders and education industry leaders are comfortable with. But it’s also possible to overstate the influence.

Consider this:

Overall government spending on K-12 education, estimated at more than $500 billion a year, dwarfs what the foundation gives. But the Seattle-based charity, with a $35 billion endowment, towers over others in the field. It gives nearly four times as much annually to elementary and secondary education as the second-biggest player, the Walton Family Foundation.

A $35 billion endowment sounds large, and it certainly is. But unless the foundation expects to spend itself out of existence soon–something few foundations ever do, at least intentionally–it is indeed going to be dwarfed by government spending. If the foundation gives away 5% of its assets each year–a moderately aggressive spending policy–it gives away $1.75 billion per year, or a ratio of 286:1. Note, though, that education is only one of several programs within the Gates foundation  (health care in the third world is another, and there are still others I’m not aware of), so in 2008, the foundation gave, according to a companion article in the Post, $219 million for education. Bump that up to $500 million just for kicks, and government spending still outspends Gates Foundation spending by a ratio of 1000:1.

There are several ways of looking at this: The tail wags the dog; school officials are so desperate for money they will do anything demanded by someone dangling money in front of them; or the education industry has a weakness to fads. Perhaps all three-if not more. I happen to agree with some of their programs and disagree with others. Some people quoted in the article point out the obvious, which is that the Gates Foundation (and anyone else, for that matter) can grab onto ideas that look good now but turn out to be not so good. That’s one reason why funds for school choice programs would be a great addition to the foundation’s portfolio: A new program would help students immediately (many of the foundation’s reforms have long-term effects), and would offer a bottom-up approach to complement the top-down approaches funded so far. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. For one thing, it has given $1.6 million (small change, admittedly) to teacher unions in an attempt to mend fences–and unions are no fans of school choice, for reasons that run from ideological to self-interest.

The article closes with a mention of a new pay experiment being conducted in Florida, funded in large measure by foundation money:

The Hillsborough system, with 193,000 students, emerged last year as the foundation sifted thousands of candidates for a project nicknamed the “deep dive.” Crucially, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association had already accepted the idea of bonuses linked to test scores and other metrics.

Over seven years, the $100 million grant will fund staff development, testing, salary and other start-up costs for a career path that aims to elevate teachers who excel and encourage those who flounder to get help.

Every year, teachers here will be evaluated on a formula based on student achievement gains (40 percent), principal observation (30 percent) and peer observation (30 percent). By 2013, a four-tier pay scale will take effect that will reward high performers regardless of their academic degrees or years of experience — a major break from precedent. Veteran teachers will be allowed to remain in the seniority-based pay scale or opt into the new one. New teachers will not have a choice and will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny before gaining tenure.

That sounds like a reasonable, gradual approach.

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