Bill Gates / Steve Jurvetson

December 27, 2015; Washington Post

Valerie Strauss, writing for the Washington Post, shines a bright light on the intersection of great wealth, charitable giving, public policy, and the nonprofit community. As a case example, she looks at Bill Gates, who, “through his exceedingly wealthy foundation…has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create and promote he Common Core State Standards over the years. When the initiative ran into opposition from critics across the political spectrum, Gates remained steadfast…in 2015, he donated more than $42 million to several dozen organizations to support the Core.”

The Gates Foundation’s 2015 grants in the field of education occurred while policy makers were debating the future directions for our national educational strategy. Many seemed to reflect a desire to provide build and nurture support for continuing the central role of the CC standards in the national strategy. Ms. Strauss reports:

The largest grant, $10.8 million, went to the New Venture Fund “to support Common Core implementation.” Among the fund’s projects is the “Collaborative for Student Success,” which the website describes as “a multi-donor fund that seeks to invest in national, regional, and state communications and messaging efforts that build support among parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers for implementing Common Core state education standards.” The collaborative will invest in grants to education groups that support messaging and polling activities, the development of communications toolkits, and convenings to advance the implementation of the Common Core standards.

Opposition to the Common Core and the closely aligned standardized testing regimen is strong in New York State. The Gates Foundation strategically chose to give $1.2 million to the United Way of New York City to “build [their] capacity as an advocate, school-based technical assistance provider and community-based organization trainer in support of Common Core in NYC and NY State.”

Other 2015 grants seemed to be made with the same goal of impacting the public debate around educational policy. With affiliates in each of the 50 states, it may not be a surprise to find that the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) was another 2015 Gates grantee, receiving slightly less than $1 million to “support the training and engagement of parent volunteers around Common Core assessments and forthcoming assessment results.” Stand for Children, an organization created to “ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education,” received $3,580,000 from the Gates Foundation to “support capacity building and increased public will around Common Core standards and aligned assessments in four states.” The publisher of Education Week, Editorial Projects in Education Inc., received a grant of $750,000 “to support reporting on issues related to the implementation of the Common Core.”

And the Gates Foundation is not alone in its use of its economic muscle to effect national policy. On the other side of this particular issue have been the Koch brothers, who through their various foundations have been strong supporters of the opposition to the Common Core. A recent Fortune Magazine article described a dinner meeting between Bill Gates and Charles Koch:

The two men were bankrolling opposite sides in a raging war over the future of American education. Through his charitable foundation, Gates has spent more than $220 million on the Common Core education standards, aimed at boosting the dismal performance of American children. Starting in 2010, 45 states adopted the benchmarks—which spell out what kids from kindergarten through high school should learn in reading and math—with little controversy. But a backlash ensued, and by early 2014 the standards were under fierce political attack, facing repeal in many states. Koch and his brother David were sponsoring several Tea Party–aligned groups that were fueling the rebellion.

While individuals and foundations have always been able to target their giving to organizations with which they agree, the growth of a class of super-rich people who control such a large share of our national wealth has changed the dynamic. As the debate that followed recent launch of the $45 billion Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative illustrated, there is a need to consider the issue of the impact of mega-philanthropy and whether it is more harmful than helpful in the long term. A look at the Gates Foundation’s “investment” in public education provides a live-action case example around which the debate can be continued.—Martin Levine