Tuesday’s announcement of $92 million in new education grants to 19 organizations marks the beginning of the next phase in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s effort to improve K-12 education outcomes in the US. These grants, beginning a multi-year $460 million commitment, are the first following the Foundation’s announcement last June that prior strategies had failed and that it was committing resources that would be more responsive to locally initiated approaches.
According to Howard Blume, writing for the Los Angeles Times, “Experience seems to have taught them not to impose so much from outside. They want to create networks of schools that will work together, with help from experts, to solve problems—and then share strategies and research. A particular goal is keeping students on track year by year, all the way to graduation.”
Previously, the Foundation had put its clout behind large and sweeping strategies that would disrupt the status quo and, the Foundation appeared to believe, push public education to a higher level of performance. Strategies like Small Schools, the Common Core Curriculum, reliance on standardized testing, and improving teachers all took a common path. They were driven, top down, into school systems in partnership with national and state governments. Each was seen as a technological breakthrough that would revolutionize public education as the technology of Microsoft had revolutionized computing. And each failed to deliver the promised results.
The Foundation says it now recognizes that no single strategy is the answer. According to Bob Hughes, the Foundation’s director of K-12 education, “We’ve come to understand how important context is. One size doesn’t fit all. We know that no school is an island, and we’ll be working with groups of schools rather than individual schools to solve problems collaboratively.”
The Foundation’s new approach relies heavily on nonprofit organizations to serve as the central point for building these new alliances and implementing new approaches rather than trusting public schools and their districts to create change directly. According to Chalkbeat, “Most of the 19 new grants are going to nonprofit organizations, including a group of urban California districts and New Visions, a New York City-based network. One grant is going to a district, Baltimore City Public Schools.” All 19 grants are described here. Many of the grants focus on supporting students within public school districts, although some grants support charter school efforts.
The projects funded in this first round are similar only in their goal of ultimately improving education. According to The 74, “The projects take aim at issues such as completion of key English and math courses in eighth and ninth grades and matching high-needs students with the correct college, including efforts to avoid students ‘under-matching’ to colleges less competitive than those they could attend. Individual grants range from $499,000 to $16 million.”
A second recent but less heralded educational grant by the Gates Foundation was a $10 million grant to the newly created City Fund. The City Fund’s strategy for educational improvement continues the “great idea, top-down” approach, which doesn’t align with the Gates Foundation’s new strategy. In a blog post from the City Fund’s leadership, it spelled out a mission much like the one the Foundation says it has forsaken. The City Fund believes increased privatization of public schools is the secret sauce: “The cities we have supported have made things better in their own way, but several commonalities stand out: each city increased the number of public schools that are governed by non-profit organizations; each city created an easy to use enrollment system that helps families find a great public school for their children; and each city provides families with transparent information about public school quality. We believe these strategies hold promise.” The Gates Foundation’s gift will allow the City Fund to drop this effort into the struggling Oakland School district and does not represent a response to a request from Oakland for a strategy they have developed.
NPQ, as it has followed the rise of mega-donors and the Gates Foundation in particular, has been concerned about the lack of public accountability in their work.
With no mechanism for accountability or for public input over what is in the public benefit, big-money philanthropists have little reason to change their approach. Rather, it seems, their belief in their own wisdom and desire for self-preservation is so strong they are ready to defend themselves from further levels of accountability by controlling the political processes that could limit their independence. Lobbying policy makers makes it possible to shape public policy to align with the philanthropist’s personal vision. In a political environment where money is speech, they have the resources to speak louder than those whose lives they will touch through their philanthropic spending.
The “new” Gates strategy of grants to nonprofits and schools for specific tailored projects may ease this concern somewhat. Hopefully, it reflects a real change, one that other large foundations will learn from, and the City Fund grant is just a last gasp of the Foundation’s past ideology.—Martin Levine