by Jim Ridley
The front page of yesterday's New York Times had a fascinating article about the influence exerted by the mega-dollar Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on shaping education issues — a mission that has shifted from direct focus on schools to changing the nation's policies. Many of its pet causes, from common core academic standards to challenging teachers' unions on seniority-based layoffs and evaluation systems, will look very familiar to Tennesseans.
What will also look familiar is the strategy, which involves creating nonprofit front groups to advance the foundation's political goals, making paid experts available to the media, and masking its agenda with "grass-roots" community spokespeople. Reporter Sam Dillon notes that while the Gates Foundation has given money to both national teachers' unions, it has also awarded money to those working against them — including $2 million in support of the release of Waiting for "Superman," the advocacy documentary that all but paints devil horns on American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. That explains the phalanx of Microsoft reps who attended the movie's advance Nashville screening last year, evidently fulfilling an advocacy aim quoted in the article: “establish strong ties to local journalists" (but “maintain a low public profile”).
Granted, this is PR/Lobbying 101 — an arsenal of tactics commonly used nowadays for shifting public opinion. The interesting thing about the Times article, though, is how pervasive the Gates Foundation's influence appears to have been, yet with very little public awareness. Most people think of its aims as philanthropic rather than political, but as the article suggests, its policy goals have fed into the systemic Republican-led attack on teachers' unions and collective bargaining rights.
Has the Gates Foundation used its massive warchest on the downlow to dictate the terms of debate over education reform? That's the question raised by the article. As an education professor tells the Times, “It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education.”