Gates Foundation Threatens to Pull $40M Grant from Pittsburgh Schools


January 9, 2014; KDKA-TV (CBS)


Money talks. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has plenty of money to promote what it thinks and says is important. A $40 million grant by the Gates Foundation to the Pittsburgh Public Schools is in jeopardy because the foundation is upset with the lack of an agreement between the school district and the teachers’ union over a core element of the grant.

The $40 million is an unparalleled foundation grant to the school district to “reward exceptional teachers and retrain those who don’t make the grade.” Tying up the grant is the failure to date of the school district and the teachers’ union to reach an agreement over teacher evaluation standards. The standards under consideration by Pittsburgh for the Gates grant would be more stringent than those used to evaluate teachers elsewhere in Pennsylvania. 

The foundation’s public statement issued last week made clear what the grantmaker wanted to see from Pittsburgh’s political and educational leaders:

“The Gates Foundation made a significant investment in Pittsburgh because their leaders were committed to ensuring every student has an effective teacher in every class. This is complicated work that requires collaboration; the commitment of the board, the superintendent and the union was a requirement of the grant. We are disappointed by the current turn of events.” 

As a result, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto flew to Seattle to ask for nine months to broker a deal between the school system and the union, motivated by the prospect of a free $40 million addition to the (proposed) 2013 budget of $521.8 million for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

This is probably an extreme example of “high-stakes testing” of teachers. With a significant reliance on student test scores for determining teacher performance, teachers are duly wary of standardized tests, which diminish the socioeconomic factors of student performance, even when the consequences could be teacher dismissals and even school closings. In this case, the high stake facing the teachers’ union is the school district’s loss of a free $40 million. 

“I think it would be devastating to the school district,” Carey Harris, of the watchdog group A+ Schools, said. “It would [be] devastating to the city, but most importantly, it would [be] devastating to the kids.” Not surprisingly—and not mentioned in the press coverage—the top-listed foundation funder of A+ Schools on its website is the Gates Foundation. According to data from the Foundation Directory Online, the Gates Foundation gave A+ Schools a two-year grant of $500,000 in 2011 to increase the nonprofit’s organizing capacity. However, Gates isn’t the largest funder of this group by a long shot. A+’s grant support over the past several years includes $2.268 million from the Heinz Endowments, $1.457 million from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, $1.293 million from the Grable Foundation, and $1.272 million from the Pittsburgh Foundation. 

Critics of the teachers union would counter that the union has more resources to deploy against this deal than A+ Schools and other education reform advocates, especially with the intervention of the American Federation of Teachers on behalf of the Pittsburgh teachers. One conservative education blogger called the efforts of the AFT and its executive director, Randi Weingarten, hypocritical, saying, despite her frequent statements about a willingness to collaborate, “Weingarten and her fellow unionists…[believe that] they need to win this fight, whatever the cost.

Whatever the Pittsburgh teachers’ union and its national AFT ally can bring to the table, they still have to face off against the largest privately endowed foundation in the world and its ability to withdraw a $40 million grant. As represented by KDKA, the foundation and the education reformers are leading in the public perception game. According to KDKA, “Without an agreement in short order, this grant will die on the vine, the school district will receive a black eye and a golden opportunity to improve education here in Pittsburgh will be squandered.” No question about it, a $40 million grant speaks volumes.—Rick Cohen

  • Anita Hoge

    Pittsburg is right to protect their teachers from the Gates agenda. “Teach to the test” will become the survival guide to sidestep the forced evaluations of students fair on the new national tests to measure the national curriculum…Common Core. Pennsylvanaia’s flexibility ESEA waiver is pure C. Danielson’s teacher training for Common Core.
    Do not take the money!! And never look back.
    Please read this article about the Obama/Duncan plan to nationalize education.

  • Elmarie Nagle

    I believe all educators should be tested on a regular basis. Of students can be tested to reach ‘standardized’
    Grades and improvement in various subjects taught, then their educators teaching them also need evaluation, to ensure all students achieve the best possible academic outcome.
    Teachers who are of good quality and up to date on all that should be taught, and the manner in which such educational programs deserve to be delivered should have no problems being evaluated themselves. Lets face it, outside of parents, teachers are the other primary educators of our children and their future hopes to succeed via a decent education is dependent upon this educaction being delivered by the school system. Should more evaluation of teachers occur, alongside continuing to test students seems a far more transparent system for all. Those secure in their own ability to deliver school programs to a high standard have nothing to fear; it is only the ‘cohort’ not delivering of their best have something to hide. With such an unprecedented Grant of this value at stake, parents and bodies representing the rights & needs of these students need to be more vocal- the very future of whole generations of children is at risk here. A solution must be found and quickly to resolve this impasse, to the benefit of all.

  • Norris Fergeson

    How about a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation to train high functioning autistic, technologically oriented youth in ap development? The nonPareil Institute, a nonprofit software company and school in Plano,Texas is training these young people to do just that, giving them the opportunity for employment. This is the invisble disability that makes employment practically impossible as managers don’t know how to deal with these folks. There are high functioning autistic folks out there with genius i.q.s that are being fired from jobs sacking groceries.

    There needs to be a nonPareil location in every major city in the U.S. They already have aps selling ITunes. It is an inspiring story.

  • tim

    The public school system and public school teachers had no problem with regularly evaluating, testing and grading me when I was a student. I received A’s or B’s or C’s depending on how well I demonstrated I had mastered the material. I was ranked in my class and was accepted to colleges based partly on the scores I had earned on these tests. Now that teachers are being evaluated and graded on how well they do their job (based partly on the same test scores that I was evaluated on), there’s this great uproar.

    How are students’ test scores not a major part of evaluating how well students have mastered material (and thus how well a teacher has done their job)? I have yet to hear of a rigorous evaluation process teachers have come up with to demonstrate “highly effective” teaching. This seems to be based on the adults’ fear of losing their job vs the fear that we aren’t adequately educating our children.