Monday, May 23, 2011

Money, Education and Democratic Voice

I read two articles today that stood in such stark contrast that I had to share them.  Both describe their efforts as “grassroots.” The first was an article in the N.Y. Times entitled, “Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates,” by Sam Dillon (NY Times, May 20, 2011). The article talks about the staggering amount of money that is going into education by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the tax forms filed for 2009 alone, the Bill Gates's foundation spent $373 million on education efforts of which $78 million was dedicated to its new form of education advocacy. According to Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program, the foundation plans to spend $3.5 billion more in education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy, over the next five or six years. Attached to the article are “Annotated Excerpts of the Gates Foundation 990 Form 2009,” a tax form required for nonprofits that runs for 263 pages and includes more than 3,000 items and 360 education grants.

The approach marks a new strategy for the foundation that previously used its philanthropy to creating small schools . The new strategy is described in the article as much more ambitious. It is an attempt to work more systemically by reforming the nation’s educational policies. To achieve this end, the foundation “is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.” But it is also “creating new advocacy groups.” Some of the examples the article reveals include:

The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations…..

Last year, Mr. Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman".....

There are the more traditional and publicly celebrated programmatic initiatives, like financing charter school operators and early-college high schools. Then there are the less well-known advocacy grants to civil rights groups like the Education Equality Project and Education Trust that try to influence policy, to research institutes that study the policies’ effectiveness, and to Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies.…..

Its latest annual report…. highlights its role — often overlooked — in the development and promotion of the common core academic standards that some 45 states have adopted in recent months. ….The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which developed the standards, and Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization coordinating the writing of tests aligned with the standards, have each received millions of dollars.....

In 2009, a Gates-financed group, the New Teacher Project, issued an influential report detailing how existing evaluation systems tended to give high ratings to nearly all teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it repeatedly and wrote rules into the federal Race to the Top grant competition encouraging states to overhaul those systems. Then a string of Gates-backed nonprofit groups worked to promote legislation across the country: at least 20 states, including New York, are now designing new evaluation……

Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, have helped amplify the voices of newer teachers as an alternative to the official views of the unions. Last summer, members of several such groups had a meeting at the foundation’s offices in Washington....
The Times article actually starts with a story of some out spoken local teachers who testified before the Indiana State Legislature and who had written policy briefs and op-ed pieces about layoffs based on seniority. Said one state legislator, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” Indeed, they may very well have been genuine, as the article points out, but ”they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” ….. a group that is later revealed in the article to have received awards totaling $4 million dollars.

And that brings us to the crux of the Times article. Writes reporter Sam Dillon:

Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

Perhaps, the concern was best put by Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was quoted as saying: “It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education.”

The other article I read at the same time this week was sent out on a grassroots listserv called the Education Liberation Network. The group also has a website called the Education for Liberation Network. In the post, the author, Tara Mack, announces an event that is to take place in two months in Providence, RI, where hundreds of educators, activists and students will come together for a grassroots gathering called, “Free Minds, Free People.” The organizers want to make the event a catalyst for continued action rather than a solitary event.

They write on their listserv:

The Education for Liberation Network has an important contribution to make to that effort. One of the ways we aim to capitalize on that energy is to begin developing regional networks that will strengthen the connection between local work and national movement building. We want to bring the network closer to you.

They then make a plea for donations to carry out this work:

To start that work we need to have the resources in place before the conference. That's why we are coming to you now. Grassroots work takes grassroots investment. Today we are kicking off our One Great Reason campaign, a week-long drive …. that will help us keep the momentum of Free Minds, Free People going by moving straight from the conference into the development of our regional networks.

Each of us has a reason for being part of this community, a reason why this work matters to you. Each day this week a member of the Education for Liberation Network will share via this listserv his/her reason for being part of our community. If their stories resonate with you, I hope you will take moment to contribute to our efforts to strengthen and expand.
The amount that this grassroots network of educators is attempting to raise this week -- $1000.

With such disparities in money and access to media and seats of power, how does a society engage in a true democratic dialogue. How is a public being created for public education? Here are two very different efforts that lie at the heart of the contradictions in democratic power and voice.

Cross-posted on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog


Sarah Stitzlein said...

Lorraine--I too was struck when reading yesterday about the huge amounts of money Gates is spending to influence education reform. Notably, this influence also involves defining what the educational problems are and which problems are worthy of address. I was also struck when I read the article about Gates alongside Wendy Kopp's earlier book about the origination of Teach for America. I realized just how powerful a small handful of foundations and funders can be when it comes down to directing education reform and initiatives. In the midst of all of this reading, I find myself trying to work alongside masses of teachers who've rallied behind the grassroots Save our Schools organization and are struggling to have their voices heard.

Barbara Stengel said...

Excellent juxtaposition of sources to make the point loud and clear.