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Reckhow: Gates Shifts Strategy & Schools Get Smaller Share

This is a guest post from Michigan State University political scientist Sarah Reckhow, whose new book Follow the Money came out in December:

From a bird’s eye view, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a behemoth in education philanthropy, with considerably more resources than its peers and a highly targeted agenda that magnetically attracts attention from media and politicians.  

But the decade from 2000 to 2010 was a time of enormous growth and evolution for the Gates Foundation. Warren Buffett’s pledge of more than $30 billion substantially increased the Gates Foundation’s resources, and grant-making more than doubled from 2005 to 2009. Even more marked are the Foundation's dramatically shifted priorities, as illustrated by this chart. 

Read on for some preliminary figures and observations about the Gates Foundation's evolution, as well as some challenges and questions about the strategies the foundation is embracing.

I analyzed the Gates Foundation’s tax returns (the 990-PF) to collect every K-12 education grant the foundation made in 2000, 2005, and 2010. For each grant, I used the organization name and the grant purpose to categorize the recipient. To compare across years, I computed the percent of grant dollars given to organizations in each category out of the foundation’s total giving in K-12 each year. Some grant categories are not included in the chart, so the total percentages for each year are less than 100. 

Several reports have noted the Gates Foundation's growing advocacy grant-making. The share of Gates funding for national level policy research and advocacy organizations grew more than 7 times over from 2000 to 2010. The national advocacy/research category includes organizations such as Education Trust, the Aspen Institute, Stand for Children, Center for American Progress, and Achieve.

Other changes have not received the media attention devoted to advocacy grant-making.

For example, as Gates has grown larger, a smaller share of Gates grant dollars goes directly to schools. In 2000, public school districts received the largest share of Gates funding for K-12; these were overwhelmingly school districts located in Washington State. Funding for school districts dropped below 10% by 2005 and rebounded slightly to 13.8% in 2010, as the foundation partnered with several school districts for the Measures of Effective Teaching project (including Hillsborough County, FL and Memphis, TN). Charter school funding grew steadily over the decade from 2% in 2000 to nearly 11% in 2010. Yet the growth in charter school funding was outpaced by other “non-school” categories. Overall, the share of Gates grants going directly to schools of all types (public, private, and charter) has dropped by nearly half, from nearly 50% in 2000 to 25% in 2010.

Meanwhile, grant dollars supporting policy advocacy, research, and engagement (through think tanks, education advocacy organizations, and publicity/media outfits) grew to more than 20% of Gates’ K-12 funding in 2010.

Other grantee categories that grew include consultants (i.e. Bellwether Education Partners, CELT Corporation), publicity/media (i.e. Participant Media, NBC Universal, Get Schooled Foundation), and venture investing (i.e. New Schools Venture Fund, E-Line Ventures). By 2010, the venture category includes some for-profit organizations, particularly in education technology. 

I am still digesting this data and digging for trends, so expect more posts down the road. For now, these trends leave me with several questions:

*How does the Gates Foundation plan to evaluate its large portfolio of “advocacy” grants? (They could start by reading this excellent article by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt.)

*Is the growth in national level policy funding a “bubble” that coincided with Obama administration policy-making (such as RTTT) that will subside? Or is this trajectory likely to continue?

*Is the decline in funding share directly to schools an outgrowth of shifting priorities (from small schools to MET)? Or does the Gates Foundation regard third party entities (venture investors, consultants, technology developers, etc.) as more effective grantee partners than schools?

Previous posts: Reckhow: The Short, Sad Story Of PENewarkReckhow: Savvy Walton FoundationPeople: Meet MSU Political Scientist Sarah Reckhow.


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This spending shift could prove beneficial if the foundation advocates sound educational policies. For example, if we were to advocate for an American equivalent to the English Baccalaureate certificates that are currently the center of the commendable coalition government's education policy in England, that advocacy would be helpful, and might ensure that all deserving underprivileged students with the desire and ability to benefit from top quality higher education would be genuinely prepared for college, especially as compared with the pseudo-college preparatory programs the Gates Foundation has generously but perhaps naively funded in the past. But if the focus remains on metrics for teachers, the foundation will remain liable to what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI, the fallacious belief that "what you see is all there is", and will continue to miss other vital aspects of a professional teacher's job, to the potential harm of the profession and of poor students who badly need wiser protection from benefactors.

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