School Masters: How Gates and Broad Came to Shape the Education Policy Debate

When it comes to presence and impact in K-12 philanthropy, it's hard to beat the Bill and Melinda Gates and the Eli and Edythe Broad foundations. Since 2000, the two mega-funders have put vast sums of money into local school districts and national education organizations and advocates, and in doing so played pivotal roles in shaping education policy in the U.S.

Other funders have spent big, too, particularly the Walton Family Foundation. But if you really want to understand ed philanthropy in our time, digging deep into Gates and Broad is a must. 

A pair of Michigan political scientists, Sarah Reckhow and Megan Tompkins-Stange, have done just that, studying the approach and activities of these two funders. They presented their findings at a recent conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on education philanthropy. (I've written a few posts now about this illuminating event.) 

Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange observed that many of the K-12 funding activities of both Gates and Broad brought a systemic approach to education philanthropy, emphasizing teacher evaluation and national standards. Their grant-making activities began at the local level, but Reckhow and Stange noted that after 2008, both funders shifted from local education groups to funding more national advocacy groups and championing these systemic reforms.

Gates funded the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project and helped fund the development of the Common Core State Standards. Broad, meanwhile, has provided a new pipeline for school and district leadership through its Broad Residency and Broad Academy, both of which train professionals to serve as education leaders.

Not coincidentally, the reforms advocated by Gates and Broad became central issues in the education policy debate at the federal and state levels. More than 40 states have adopted the Common Core, and dozens of districts across the country have implemented teacher evaluation systems. Meanwhile, Broad Academy Fellows have assumed leadership positions at many school systems and education agencies, including Rhode Island; Maryland; Fulton County, GA; Los Angeles; Dallas; and Broward County, FL.

Both funders' strategies, according to Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange, have emphasized cultivating relationships with top education officials and funding high-profile organizations to conduct policy advocacy at the federal level. However, they caution other funders that these strategies are not necessarily formulas for policy success. They note, for example, the "buyers remorse" some states have after their adoption of the Common Core, as well as a broader concern about the influence of private funders over such a democratic institution as public education. 

The paper's authors attribute part of the funders' success to the framing of preferred policy positions as "evidence-based," and therefore, politically neutral. Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange point out that this approach often has the effect of sidelining some stakeholders in the education debate. They conclude that rather than convergent funding strategies, in which money coalesces behind one viewpoint, funders should instead strive to facilitate a robust debate over education policy that takes a wide range of perspectives into consideration.

Great advice perhaps, but don't count on that happening. Ed reform funders these days often operate like a cabal, directing vast sums to a handful of preferred strategies and top groups, like Teach for America and KIPP. Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange might as well tell ISIS to engage all interpretations of Islam. (Okay, we know: an extreme analogy, but you get the point.) 

If anything, the trend appears to be toward more convergence, with reform funders increasingly favoring organizations outside the traditional K-12 system. The recent decision by the Broad Foundation to end its annual Broad Prize for urban education, awarded each year to a top-performing public school district, is an example of funders moving away from traditional education institutions. Broad has continued a similar prize for charter schools.

Funders such as Walton and Arnold have demonstrated their preference for charters and similar types of education reforms (although with some exceptions). The ultimate effects of these reforms are unclear, but they raise legitimate concerns about the influence of private donors over public education.

Related: How the New Education Funders Are Different: A Scholar's View