Billions and Billions, and I am not talking about stars!

I am talking about dollars, and how billionaires are influencing (science) education policy from the K-12 level to the U.S. Department of Education, and this is being done in an environment where the billionaires are demanding accountability from the recipients of its money, but do so without having to be held to any standards or accountability themselves.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores how testing and choice are undermining education.  As Ravitch points out, there are many philanthropic organizations such as the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller, which have used a Request for Proposal (RFP) strategy in which they reviewed proposals, and then funded proposals that met various project goals.

In her book she identifies three new and very different foundations that decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and who would be the recipients of their money—billions of dollars.  The three foundations she identified are The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundation.  If you go to their websites, you will see a vast array of “investments” that each of these foundations has and is making in education policy and practice.  So, what is the problem here?

For these foundations, their investments in education should produce measurable results.  As Ravitch points out, these organizations might have begun their education work with various goals in mind, but she suggests that they have most recently supported educational reform strategies that mirror their own experience in acquiring large fortunes.  These include competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.

The foundations have huge sums of money available to implement reform based on these strategies, and it is very difficult of school districts to turn their backs on such generosity.  These foundations exert enormous influence on public education, and indeed, can shape public policy toward education.  Ravitch puts it this way:

They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are the bastions of unaccountable power.

The billions and billions of dollars that these foundations have decided to invest in education have not been reviewed or assessed by academics.  Ravitch points out that not one book has been published which questions their strategies, and there appears to be few if any published papers or articles written by university faculty, perhaps because of fear alienating the foundations resulting in not having their projects funded.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education received 100 billion dollars as part of Economic and Recovery Act to invest in K-12 education.  Four and half billion dollars have been allocated to The Race to the Top Fund in which states compete for the money.  Two states have received nearly 500 million of this money; other states will submit their proposals by June 1 for the second round of funding.  Unfortunately the Race to the Top Fund guidelines that the states must follow have been heavily influenced by the Billionaire Foundation of Gates, Walton and Broad.  Indeed, Bill Gates is an advisor to the Secretary of Education.

There is a fundamental problem here.  I will explore this more in the days ahead.  For now, I am going to watch a 60 minute segment on earthquakes.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University