The Gates Foundation is the $36 billion gorilla of education

In the circles in which I move, there has been a lot of talk this week about a major article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, taking on the Gates Foundation‘s outsized power in education policy.

As a former Gates Foundation contractor I spoke at length to the authors of the piece and am quoted extensively in one sidebar about the program’s influence on media. I wanted to lay out the pros and cons of my experience because as a journalist I believe that maximum transparency is the key to dealing head-on with all potential conflicts of interest and influence. Likewise, the Chronicle itself disclosed early in its own piece that it receives funding from Gates. So has The Hechinger Report, which publishes this blog.

The sheer size of Gates–a $36 billion endowment, $2.6 billion given away last year alone to all programs, making it the world’s largest private grantmaking organization–creates this sort of irony throughout the education world, leaving many critics and observers, including myself, open to the charge of co-optation. But besides leading to a few awkward social moments among education researchers and journalists at conferences, is Gates really having an “undemocratic and undue influence” on education policy in the United States? And if so, what’s the best way to counter that influence?

Politics: Gates money is big in isolation, but all philanthropic money is dwarfed by government spending on education–$600 billion annually for K-12 in the United States. Pilot studies and technology startups and charter schools are all well and good, but Gates’ real power move–as outlined in this American Enterprise Institute book about philanthropy in K-12–is getting the ear of the Department of Education through its lobbying, advocacy and research. The creation of the Race to the Top fund is the most obvious example.

Politically, I think the strongest democratic principle to uphold as a check and balance to this policy ecosystem is that of local control. While the reformers are obsessed with “scaling up” and “impact,” applying their chosen solutions to as many schools as possible, there is a strong tradition in this country of giving teachers and parents in individual schools the deciding vote in what kind of education their children are going to have.

Technology & Innovation: It’s a bit simplistic to argue that the secret purpose of the Gates Foundation is to get governments to buy a lot of Windows computers for classrooms in order to make Microsoft more successful and further enrich the richest man in the world.

But a more subtle and insidious form of the argument I think does hold water. Bill Gates and many of his fellow Silicon Valley philanthropists fall into the category of “technological solutionists,” in the phrase of Evgeny Morozov. Their personal life experience was getting very rich creating the Internet-enabled reality we’re all living in, which really does feel magical sometimes and profoundly different from what came before. And because of that they tend to believe the following:

1) Technology fixes things 2) More fundamentally, innovation–doing things very differently than they were done before–fixes things.

And then, at the same time, they believe that when it comes to education, the status quo is very broken. Not only is it the case that when you have a hammer, it makes everything look like a nail–sometimes, it also makes everything look like it’s falling apart.

So I think it’s incumbent upon everyone who thinks about education, especially if we’re taking Gates money, to look hard at those assumptions and their opposites. That’s the message of this story to me.

What can technology solve? What is it helpless to solve? 

Where do we need to innovate? What do we need to preserve?

What is really broken about school right now? What’s working? and finally,

Who is deciding? Who are we not hearing from?