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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 07/06/2012

Why the Gates Foundation is so puzzling

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” This first appeared on her blog.

By Diane Ravitch

When one foundation has amassed over $30 billion, it has the financial power to shape the policies of government to its liking.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has more than $30 billion, and when Warren Buffet’s gift of another $30 billion is added to the Gates
Bill Gates (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)
fund, the Gates Foundation will have the power to direct global policy on almost any issue of its choosing.

Educator Anthony Cody published a guest column on his Education Week Teacher blog that describes how the Gates Foundation intervenes in agricultural and environmental issues around the world, often in ways that support corporate profits rather than the public interest. (Education Week is in part funded by the Gates Foundation.)

I have never believed that the Gates Foundation or the Gates family puts profits above the public interest. I work on the assumption that anyone who has more riches than they can ever spend in their lifetime or in 100 lifetimes is not motivated by greed. It makes no sense.

I believe that Bill and Melinda Gates want to establish a legacy as people who left the world a better place.

But I think their their efforts to “reform” education are woefully mistaken.

I have tried but had no luck in my efforts to meet Bill Gates. On the two occasions when I was in Seattle in the past year, I tried to arrange a meeting with him well in advance. He was never available.

I am puzzled by what I read in the column cited abovee. I am also puzzled by the Gates Foundation’s persistent funding of groups that want to privatize public education. I am puzzled by their funding of “astroturf” groups of young teachers who insist that they don’t want any job protections, don’t want to be rewarded for their experience (of which they have little) or for any additional degrees, and certainly don’t want to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

I am puzzled by their funding of groups that are promoting an anti-teacher, anti-public education agenda in state after state. And I am puzzled by the hundreds of millions they have poured into the quixotic search to guarantee that every single classroom has a teacher that knows how to raise test scores.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone at the Gates Foundation has any vision of what good education is, or whether they think that getting higher test scores is the same as getting a good education. I wonder if they ever think about their role in demoralizing and destabilizing the education profession.

When Bill or Melinda Gates is asked whether it is democratic for one foundation, their foundation, to shape a nation’s education policy, they don a mask of false modesty. Who, little old us? They disingenuously reply that the nation spends more than $600 billion on education, which makes their own contribution small by comparison. Puny, by comparison.

Anyone with any sense knows that their discretionary spending has had a powerful effect on the policies of the U.S. Department of Education, on the media, on states and on districts. When Bill Gates speaks, the National Governors Association snaps to attention, awed by his wealth. They are pulling the strings, and they prefer to pretend they aren’t.

But their disclaimers do not change the fact that they have power without accountability. They want accountability for teachers, but who holds them accountable?

When I see Bill or Melinda make a pronouncement on education, I am reminded of the song in “Fiddler on the Roof:” “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

They don’t. And no one will tell them that they are out of their depth. They may be well-meaning but they are misinformed, and they are inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.

Who elected them? Why should they have the power to shape American education?.

It’s puzzling.

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