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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, May 17, 2018 1:00 am

Gates' money influencing education policy

SALLY HO | Associated Press

SEATTLE – Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates saw an opportunity with a new federal education law that has widespread repercussions for American classrooms.

His nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given about $44 million to outside groups over the past two years to help shape new state education plans required under the 2015 law, according to an Associated Press analysis of its grants. The spending paid for research aligned with Gates' interests, led to friendly media coverage and had a role in helping write one state's new education system framework.

The grants illustrate how strategic and immersive the Microsoft founder can be in pursuit of his education reform agenda, quietly wielding national influence over how schools operate. Gates' carefully curated web of influence is often invisible but allows his foundation to drive the conversation in support of its vision on how to reshape America's struggling school systems.

Critics call it meddling by a foundation with vast wealth and resources. The Gates Foundation says it's simply helping states navigate a “tectonic” shift in responsibility for education – from the federal government to more local control.

“For 50 states with varying sets of capacities and capabilities and readiness, it was both an opportunity and also a concern that states and partners in those states needed support,” said Allan Golston, president of the Gates Foundation's U.S. work.

The Gates Foundation focused on the 2015 federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law gives states flexibility to create their own education system framework defining what a “good school” is – and in turn states get federal dollars for complying with their own rules.

The law requires academic standards, which means that the backbone for most state education systems is Common Core – a symbol for many critics during the Obama years of federal overreach in schools. Gates was influential in supporting the Common Core academic standards and now is doing the same as states sort out the best ways to implement their education policies under the 2015 law.

Some Common Core and Gates critics said they weren't aware of the foundation's interest in the education law or the millions of dollars it has continued to pour into supporting the standards.

“They're doing it in a quiet way because they don't want the general public to know they're still meddling in education policy,” said Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education.