This column was not funded in whole or in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It may, however, be one of the few commentaries about education reform that isn’t influenced by Washington’s favorite multi-billionaires.
The foundation now either funds the groups talking about education reform (including some of the media coverage of it) or inspires the other side to condemn its influence.
Way too many people either are getting paid by – or made angry by – the Gates Foundation. That might make it difficult to know who is saying what about school reform because they believe it, and who is doing so because they feel obligated.
That I have been oblivious to this battle became obvious after I wrote recently about the Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition. The collection of minority advocates, education reform groups and business organizations wants to influence upcoming union negotiations.
I noted that Vibrant Schools had received a grant from the foundation, but didn’t think twice about it because (a) doesn’t everybody? and (b) the coalition’s agenda is nearly the same as the Gates Foundation agenda. Both support higher standards in public schools, testing to measure students against those standards, and evaluation of teachers based on how well students do.
But a reader sent me some articles that question the foundation’s use of grants to form national education policy. In exchange for funding, the writers assert, governments and organizations carry out the Gates’ campaign to “corporatize” or “privatize” public education.
“Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools,” wrote Joanne Barkan in Dissent Magazine.
Over the weekend, The New York Times had an article that covered much of the same ground. The Times noted that, among many other things, the Gates Foundation had supported two teacher organizations in other states that testify in opposition to the big teacher unions on issues such as merit pay and seniority-based layoffs.
It helped fund the writing of a study critical of teacher evaluation systems called “The Widget Effect” and even subsidized production of the pro-charter school documentary “Waiting for Superman.” (While that movie was critical of teachers unions, the Gates Foundation also has given money to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.)
Now comes Tacoma and an allegation that Vibrant Schools was created by a Seattle public affairs firm that gets money from Gates. Strategies 360 did similar advocacy work during 2010 negotiations in Seattle.
“Heads up, Tacoma teachers! Don’t be fooled by the ‘Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition,’” wrote Sue Peters on her Seattle Education blog. Calling Vibrant Schools an “Astroturf group,” Peters wrote that its goal is “to impose an outside corporate ed reform agenda on teachers by tricking them into believing there is broad public support for these (discredited) reforms when there is not.”
The explanation depends on the rather offensive conclusion that locals such as NAACP Tacoma, the Black Collective and the Pierce County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are all dupes – that they either don’t understand the issues or only want to further the Gates agenda.
Of course it is possible instead to conclude that coalition members are sincere. It is logical that the same groups active in Seattle last summer would help organize in Tacoma.
It’s also true that teachers unions organize and pay for advocacy and fund organizations that agree with union positions. And it makes sense that reform advocates such as Gates would want to counter union political clout.
That’s why it wasn’t shocking that Vibrant Schools got money from a foundation that has taken the same positions and shown willingness to give financial support.
Certainly this conclusion is more likely since many of the people involved in Vibrant Schools have been active in reform for years (though it is true that several, including Peace Community Center and Allen Renaissance, are current and past recipients of Gates grants).
But the alternative explanation for any and all support of education reform – a sinister conspiracy fueled by Gates largesse – is a lot more fun.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics