The Single Largest Education Donor Comes with Controversy

Judy Hartnett's picture
Monday, February 27, 2012

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers struggling districts a pot of gold—but with strings attached.

For the last decade, in districts big and small, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has emerged as the largest private funder of educational efforts. This began with an initiative around small schools in the early to mid-2000s, mostly abandoned now, and has gained traction in the past few years in areas such as teacher evaluation, the Common Core State Standards and district-charter collaboration. At a time when schools are more strapped financially than ever, it’s hard for districts to refuse money from the foundation when offered, although it often comes with strings attached asking districts to follow reforms pushed by the foundation, including teacher evaluations and district-charter collaborations.

The Gates speak with Principal Daniel Bonilla at Thomas Jefferson High School.] The Gates speak with Principal Daniel Bonilla at Thomas Jefferson High School.Bruce Hunter, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), recalls sitting on a panel about a year ago discussing reductions in federal education spending when one of his fellow panelists joked, “If that [federal] funding goes, we’ll just go to the ‘other Department of Education.’ Nobody laughed because they recognized the truth of that statement,” he says. “It was the first time I heard anybody say out loud what everybody had been acknowledging.”

Don Shalvey, deputy director of U.S. programs in education for the Gates Foundation, laughs heartily in reaction to the “other Department of Education” remark. “I think that’s an enormous exaggeration,” he says. Shalvey, former superintendent of the San Carlos (Calif.) School District and co-founder of the Aspire network of charter schools, nevertheless readily acknowledges the foundation’s level of influence.

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