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Gates's Foundation Helps ALEC Undercut Public Education

Bill and Melinda Gates's Foundation Helps ALEC Undercut Public Education

Bill Berkowitz
December 13, 2011

Gates Foundation Enables ALEC's Project to Privatize Public Education

In the war being fought over the very survival of public education, the privatizers are forging the future. Is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aiding and abetting them?

I don't know how you feel about Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, and one of the world's richest men. Many people appreciate what he's accomplished. Many think that Gates' wife, Melinda, is doing wonderful work aiding the poor in underdeveloped countries. Gates' dad, who has taken the lead in advocating higher taxes for the wealthy, has always seemed really likable.

In philanthropic circles, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives some $3 billion annually, especially in fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and mother-child deaths in underdeveloped countries around the world, is highly regarded.

However, there are critics concerned about what Edward Skloot, director of Duke University's Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, recently characterized as the foundation's "brass-knuckle philanthropy." (It should also be noted that Skloot has indicated he thinks the foundation's methodology was "pretty close to the ideal.")

At a recent Hudson Institute-sponsored panel titled "Living with the Gates Foundation", Tim Ogden, editor of Philanthropy Action, said that Gates is "creating the ball, building the team, hiring the referees," and "funding the instant replay." According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Caroline Preston's report, Laura Freschi, of New York University's Development Research Institute, "said it's not out of the question that one day a reader might devour an article about a Gates-supported health project, printed on the pages of a newspaper that gets Gates money, reported by a journalist who received media training paid for by Gates, citing research by scientists financed by Gates."

Gates recently told Christiane Amanpour, the host of ABC's "This Week With Christiane Amanpour," that while he favored raising taxes on the wealthy, he didn't think that would solve the "deficit gap." He also said that he didn't think President Obama was waging class warfare on the rich, joking that as far as knows, there are no barricades in the streets being manned by the wealthy.

Gates does have a legion of critics. In his new biography of the late Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson reported that Jobs told him that Gates is "basically unimaginative, has never invented anything ... he just shamelessly ripped off other people's ideas."

Last year, I wrote a piece about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's relationship to the chemical company Monsanto and the agribusiness giant Cargill. The gist of the story was that the Foundation had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23 million in the second quarter of 2010. Critics pointed out that amongst other things, Monsanto has for years had a negative impact on small farmers, especially in Africa.

And some critics are highly skeptical about some of the Gates Foundation's choices, particularly as it relates to education in the United States. According to the Gates Foundation website, their education mission in the U.S. is pretty straightforward: "... to dramatically improve education so that all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. We seek to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and career and prepared to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate with value in the workplace."

Would it surprise you to learn that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave more than $300,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a shadowy right-wing organization that has inordinate power in state legislatures across the country.

In November, the foundation announced that it has awarded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a grant of $376,635 earmarked for ALEC's work on an assortment of education projects, over a 22-month period. The Gates Foundation's official description of the grant reads: "to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement."

Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of "Why Philanthro-policymaking Matters" in The Politics of Philanthrocapitalism, Society 2011, The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation (Stanford University Press, 2004). In a recent piece at The Education Optimists titled "Billionaire Education Policy," Rogers pointed out that the Gates Foundation's grant to ALEC was aimed at "influenc[ing] state budget making - where the rubber hits the road on education policy." Rogers noted that after the grant's announcement, "Twitter was buzzing with the news" and the debate revolved around "whether this constituted a Republican takeover of the state budget process, a Gates Foundation takeover of ALEC or both. No one suggested it was a victory for democracy."

Since its founding nearly 40 years ago, the raison d'etre of the American Legislative Exchange Council has been to influence state legislatures on behalf of corporations and so-called family values advocates, but mostly corporations. As The Center for Media and Democracy's "ALEC Exposed" project points out, the organization is "not a lobby" and "not a front group": "It is much more powerful than that."

Primarily funded by corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations," and populated mainly by Republican office holders, ALEC is a non-profit organization made up primarily of a "who's who' of the extreme right."

As I reported in late March of this year, "while the Washington, D.C.-based ALEC may not be responsible for all of the mayhem going on in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, and Michigan (with more states certain to follow), it has historically played an extraordinary role in shaping pro-corporate legislation in a number of states."

According to ALEC Exposed, ALEC-sponsored "bills would privatize public education, crush teacher's unions, and push American universities to the right. Among other things, these bills make education a private commodity rather than a public good, and reverse America's modern innovation of promoting learning and civic virtue through public schools staffed with professional teachers for children from all backgrounds."

As Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, pointed out in a piece in The Nation, ALEC's mission is "to defund and redesign public schools." Underwood detailed how ALEC has been promoting "choice" and "vouchers" for more than 20 years.

However, Underwood wrote: "ALEC's most ambitious and strategic push toward privatizing education came in 2007, through a publication called School Choice and State Constitutions, which proposed a list of programs tailored to each state." Several states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah and Indiana enacted ALEC-suggested legislation.

"ALEC's 2010 Report Card on American Education called on members and allies to ‘Transform the system, don't tweak it,' likening the group's current legislative strategy to a game of whack-a-mole: introduce so many pieces of model legislation that there is "no way the person with the mallet [teachers' unions] can get them all." Underwood wrote.

According to Underwood, "ALEC's agenda includes":

• "Introducing market factors into teaching, through bills like the National Teacher Certification Fairness Act."

• "Privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives, especially through the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act and Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, whose many spinoffs encourage the creation of private schools for specific populations: children with autism, children in military families, etc."

• "Increasing student testing and reporting, through more "accountability," as seen in the Education Accountability Act, Longitudinal Student Growth Act, One-to-One Reading Improvement Act and the Resolution Supporting the Principles of No Child Left Behind."

• "Chipping away at local school districts and school boards, through its 2009 Innovation Schools and School Districts Act and more. Proposals like the Public School Financial Transparency Act and School Board Freedom to Contract Act would allow school districts to outsource auxiliary services."

Admittedly, the $376,635 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is just a drop from the foundation's bucket, and it will not guarantee ALEC's success in achieving its goals. It certainly will help. As Underwood pointed out, "ALEC's real motivation for dismantling the public education system is ideological-creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone - and profit-driven."

What the foundation's grant might contribute to is another in a series of ginned-up reports produced by ALEC's education team. Robin Rogers wrote recently that there's a danger to extrapolate conclusions from education experiments - as it was in welfare reform: "Our measurements are imprecise at best and meaningless and misleading at worst. Most educators, advocates, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers are well aware of the problem of measuring complex outcomes. That awareness disappears when we talk about policy experiments. We act as if testing these programs will lead to some empirical, objective truth about what works best."

Rogers added: "Policy experiments are supposed to tell us empirically how good a program or approach is. They don't do this very well. Randomized experiments are expensive, difficult, and rare. Most policy ‘experiments' aren't really experiments. They are a trial run of a program with data collection. Even then, the data is often collected haphazardly or to highlight program success and minimize failures. Politics and research also operate in different time frames - solid evaluations often take years. In short, well-funded policy evaluations take too long to actually affect policy, and ad hoc evaluations don't produce reliable findings."

In the final analysis, ALEC will take Gates money. It will likely come up with another report touting the success of charter schools and voucher programs, and more reasons to bust teachers unions. It will design sample legislation for its members to introduce in state houses across the country. The privatization of public education will move forward. This is not a project that Bill or Melinda Gates should be proud of.


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