By Joanne Barkan. Originally published at the Nonprofit Quarterly (Spring 2016; vol. 23, no. 1)
Once upon a time, the super-wealthy endowed their tax-exempt charitable foundations and then turned them over to boards of trustees to run. The trustees would spend the earnings of the endowment to pursue a typically grand but wide-open mission written into the foundation’s charter—like the Rockefeller Foundation’s 1913 mission “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” Today’s multibillionaires are a different species of philanthropist; they keep tight control over their foundations while also operating as major political funders—think Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or Walmart heiress Alice Walton. They aim to do good in the world, but each defines “good” idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals. They translate their wealth, the work of their foundations, and their celebrity as doers-of-good into influence in the public sphere—much more influence than most citizens have.
Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny. Like all forms of plutocracy, this one conflicts with democracy, and exactly how these philanthropists coordinate tax-exempt grantmaking with political funding for maximum effect remains largely obscure. What follows is a case study of the way charitable plutocracy operates on the ground. It’s a textbook example of the tug-of-war between government by the people and uber-philanthropists as social engineers.
The Case of Bill Gates and Washington State
This story begins in 1995, when the Washington State House of Representatives first considered legislation that would enable private individuals and organizations to obtain charters to create their own K–12 schools. These were to be taxpayer-funded schools, but privately run and exempt from many of the regulations governing district (regular) public schools. The funding would come from the resources of regular public schools: each student would “carry” his or her per-child funding out of the district system to a charter school.
The bill died in the state senate, so supporters went directly to voters with a ballot initiative to enable charter schools. The campaign attracted little money on either side, but turnout was high because the vote took place on the same day as the 1996 presidential election. Washingtonians rejected charter schools decisively: 64.4 percent against, 35.6 percent in favor.1
State representatives kept trying. They proposed new bills in 1997, 1998, and 1999, but got the same results: success in the lower chamber, failure in the senate.2
Wariness of charter schools didn’t mean that Washingtonians were completely satisfied with existing schools or feared change. Voters had legitimate concerns. Charter schools, they worried, would divert tax revenue from already underfunded district schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students. In addition, schools under private management might be less transparent and less accountable to the public than Washington’s district schools, which were overseen by locally elected boards.
Charter supporters tried another ballot initiative in 2000, and, for the first time, attracted the backing of a multibillionaire philanthropist. Paul Allen had cofounded Microsoft in 1975 and The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in 1988.3 The state places no limits on individual campaign contributions for ballot measures, so Allen was able to give $3.275 million of the total $3.4 million raised by the pro-charter side. Opponents raised only about $11,000. Outspent 309 to 1, they still defeated the initiative, although the millions given in support of charters shrank the margin of victory. The vote was 51.8 percent against charters and 48.2 percent in favor.4
In the next four years, the national context shifted. The debate around public education intensified as a controversial market-based education-reform movement grew stronger. “Ed-reformers” claimed that U.S. public schools were failing; that the culprits were bad teachers, teachers unions, and government bureaucracy; and that the private sector, using public resources, could run better schools. They promoted competition among schools to force out the weakest and measuring educational success via students’ standardized test scores.
The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to “disrupt” and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K–12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results. Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education-reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.
The Washington legislature finally passed a charter school law in 2004. Opponents responded by petitioning for a ballot measure to repeal the law. Mobilized by the teachers unions, League of Women Voters, state Democratic Party, and the Seattle School Board, they raised $1.3 million for the campaign. The unions contributed the most: the Washington Education Association gave $601,000, and the National Education Association gave $500,000.5
Charter school supporters raised three times as much—$3.9 million. Most of it came from three education-reform political funder-philanthropists, who donated about $1 million each: Bill Gates, who had recently made education reform the main focus of his domestic philanthropy; Walmart heir John T. Walton (from Wyoming), who advocated charters and tax-funded vouchers for parents to use for private-school tuition; and Donald Fisher (from California), founder of Gap and a major donor to the KIPP chain of charter schools.6
When philanthropists finance political campaigns, they act as individual citizens spending their personal wealth, not as the heads of tax-exempt, charitable foundations. Federal and state laws bar private foundations from political activity. Although the regulations have ambiguities and loopholes, high-profile philanthropists are usually careful about keeping foundation and personal monies separate and using only the latter to fund political campaigns.
Although outspent three to one, charter school opponents in Washington won an impressive victory in 2004. The law was repealed by a vote of 58.3 percent to 41.7 percent.7
This big-money face-off—multibillionaire philanthropists against teachers unions—turned out to be a prototype repeated across the country in scores of education-reform campaigns in the last decade. Millions of dollars regularly pour into races for local and state school boards and for district and state school superintendents, as well as for education ballot initiatives. The money comes from both in state and out of state. Twenty years ago, these contests cost little to run; the stakes were limited. Now, the money is huge, and the ramifications are national: the nature and control of public education is being decided.
Education-reform philanthropists justify their massive political spending as a necessary counterweight to the teachers unions;8 yet, the philanthropists can, and consistently do, far outspend the unions. In 2004, Paul Allen had a net worth of $21 billion, Bill Gates had a net worth of $46.6 billion, and John T. Walton (who died in 2005) had a net worth of $20 billion.9 Donald Fisher’s net worth was $1.3 billion in 2005.10 In 2015, Allen had a net worth of $17.8 billion, Gates had a net worth of $76 billion, and Doris Fisher (Donald Fisher’s widow and a charter school donor) had a net worth of $2.9 billion.11 And the unions? According to the 2015 reports filed with the Office of Labor-Management Standards, the National Education Association had $388.8 million in total receipts; the American Federation of Teachers had $327.6 million in total receipts.12 As political rivals, the education-reform philanthropists and the teachers unions have never competed on a level playing field.
In January 2012, charter school supporters in the Washington State legislature introduced another bill. By then, the state was one of only nine that didn’t permit charter schools. Some states had bowed to pressure from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program (2009–2011): by committing to a list of specific reforms, including charter schools, they had a chance to win additional federal funds. Despite resistance to the reforms, resource-starved states were willing to sign on to almost anything to get more funding.
More than five thousand charter schools were operating in the United States in 2012, and researchers were finding some serious problems. Charter schools were diverting funds from district schools while also enrolling a smaller proportion of the most at-risk children (for example, children with disabilities and English-language learners). These children remained at or returned to district schools just as the districts were losing resources. In addition, the quality of charter schools was extremely uneven, according to the education reformers’ own criterion: student scores on standardized tests. A large-scale study, published in 2013 by the pro-education-reform Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, concluded that about 27 percent of charters performed better than district schools serving equivalent student populations; about 25 percent performed worse; the rest were about the same.13
Despite the problems with charter schools, education-reform philanthropists had no second thoughts about their drive to replace as many district schools as possible. They had various motivations: the conviction that market competition among schools could not fail to improve the quality of public education; the desire to get government out of the business of running schools (although taxpayers would still fund them); and determination to weaken the teachers unions (only about 7 percent of charter schools are unionized).14 Charter advocates also argued that low-income parents should have a choice of schools for their children just as wealthier parents did—no matter that most charters were no better than district schools and some were worse, and that charters were weakening district schools and that high-performing charters accommodated few students.
Meanwhile, the leadership of both houses of the Washington legislature opposed the 2012 charter bill.15 When it died in committee, the activist billionaires stepped in, with Gates in the lead: they would finance yet another charter school ballot initiative—the state’s fourth.
In the first phase of Washington’s initiative process, citizen sponsors draft their legislation, and the Office of the Code Reviser certifies the text. Thus, citizens, not legislators, write the proposed law. In phase two, supporters collect a sufficient number of valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot in the next state general election. Phase three is the campaign and vote.16
Once the thirty-nine-page charter school measure was certified, the state’s Attorney General’s office issued an official title, subject, and “concise description” to be printed on the ballot. Here they are:
Initiative Measure No. 1240 concerns creation of a public charter school system. This measure would authorize up to forty publicly-funded charter schools open to all students, operated through approved, nonreligious, nonprofit organizations, with government oversight; and modify certain laws applicable to them as public schools.
Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]17
The coalition of advocates behind the 2012 initiative included some well-known grantees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: for example, Stand for Children (about $9 million in grants from 2005 through 2012)18 and the League of Education Voters, a subgrantee of the Alliance for Education ($733,285 in grants for 2011 and 2012).19
To collect the signatures, the coalition hired PCI Consultants, Inc., of Calabasas, California, a “full service petition and field management firm” with experience in Washington State.20 The drive began in mid-June, which left just twenty-one days to collect 241,153 valid signatures—the shortest drive in state history (except for one in 1973).21 Success depended on quick access to millions of dollars for an all-out effort.
The drive raised $2.3 million and delivered about 350,000 signatures by the July 6 deadline.22 One signature gatherer from California told the Seattle Times that he was among about four hundred out-of-staters who had been hired. Coalition spokespeople declined to confirm or deny the information.23
According to the Public Disclosure Commission in Washington State, funders for the signature drive included Gates ($1 million), Alice Walton (from Arkansas, $600,000), Mike and Jackie Bezos (parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, $500,000), venture capitalist Nicolas Hanauer ($450,000), Katherine Binder (chair of EMFCO Holdings, $200,000), Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. ($100,000), and Reed Hastings, from California (Netflix cofounder and KIPP charter schools board member, $100,000).24
As soon as Initiative 1240 was certified for the November vote, the race to stockpile more money began.
The pro-charter side collected another $9.1 million for the fall campaign. More than 70 percent of the additional money came from just six donors: Gates ($2.075 million), Vulcan, Inc. ($1.5 million), Alice Walton ($1.1 million), Mike and Jackie Bezos ($600,000), Hanauer ($600,000), and Connie Ballmer (wife of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, $500,000).25
Opposition to the charter initiative was broad but not deep-pocketed. The organizations calling for a “no” vote included the Seattle King County NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, the Japanese American Citizens League Board, the League of Women Voters, the Washington State PTA, local elected school boards, the Association of Washington School Principals, the Washington Association of School Administrators, many district and county Democratic Party organizations, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Education Association, and other state and local unions.26
The “no” coalition raised just over $727,400.27 The largest donations came from the National Education Association ($250,000) and the Washington Education Association ($200,000).28 According to KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio’s blog, “Teachers’ union officials say… when it comes to the big money behind the charter school initiative, they just can’t compete.”29
No one disputes that big money sways voting outcomes or that superwealthy philanthropists regularly spend millions to get the outcomes they want. The vote on Washington’s Initiative 1240 stands out for this reason: despite outspending their opponents more than 12 to 1, the philanthropists barely eked out a victory. The final tally was 50.69 percent in favor, 49.31 percent opposed.30 Citizens might well have asked whether the advent of charter schools in their state expressed the will of the people.
Once the initiative was law, the backing for charter schools switched from political contributions to tax-exempt philanthropy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation went into high gear for the next phase of the project. The foundation disbursed more than $31 million in less than three years “to give public charter schools in Washington State a strong start.”31 In practice, this meant selecting and financing individuals and organizations to start schools, advise charter boards, and develop education programs.
The Gates Foundation spent more than $13.5 million to set up and run the Washington State Charter Schools Association—a private group whose work includes awarding “fellowships” to educators who want to open schools. Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management organization founded in Los Angeles, received $8 million in 2013 to expand into Washington. Green Dot has received about $24 million from Gates since 2006. Another charter management organization, the Bay Area’s Summit Public Schools, also received $8 million in 2013 to branch into Washington. Charter Board Partners, a D.C.-based nonprofit consultancy for charter school governance, received more than $1.2 million to open a Washington office. The Gates Foundation gave California’s Seneca Family of Agencies almost $1 million to develop support for at-risk students in Washington’s charter schools.32
Thus, the schools were to be public in name and receive public funding for each student, but the Gates Foundation, with no public oversight, stepped in to shape the charter system.
Washington’s first charter school opened in 2014 and was on probation for compliance problems in the summer of 2015, when eight more charters were about to launch.33 But on September 4, 2015, the Washington Supreme Court halted the entire charter program by declaring the 2012 law unconstitutional. This was the first time any court had struck down a charter school law in its entirety.
The reasoning in the 6-3 decision is straightforward: The state constitution stipulates that only common (public) schools can receive government funding, and all common schools in the state must be subject to local voter control. Because charter schools are run by appointed boards or private organizations, they are not common schools and do not qualify for government funding.34
Charter school supporters blamed the ruling on the bias of liberal activist justices, but as Michael J. Fox, a retired superior court judge, wrote in a letter to the Seattle Times, “I voted for the charter schools initiative. […] But I’ve read the court’s decision thoroughly and am convinced it is well-grounded and based on the pertinent constitutional provisions. Any other decision could only have been based on political ideology and not our supreme law.”35
Charter activists—some with Gates money—filed motions asking the court to reconsider its decision, but the court refused. Undeterred, three Gates grantees—the Washington State Charter Schools Association, Stand for Children, and League of Education Voters—partnered to create a PAC to channel money to legislators willing to vote for a modified charter law. When the PAC was announced, in December 2015, checks had already gone out to twenty-four lawmakers.36 On March 10, 2016, the legislature passed a new bill that would fund charter schools with state lottery revenue. Supporters believe this will pass constitutional muster because lottery proceeds go into an account that is separate from the state’s general fund and the lottery account is not restricted to common schools. Opponents argue that the bill does nothing more than shift money from one account to another.37 Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, who is running for reelection against a pro-charter Republican, allowed the bill to become law without his signature, at the end of a special legislative session on April 2. A union coalition plans to sue the state over the law. Meanwhile, the state remains under a contempt order from the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. There’s no end in sight.
The Nuisance of Democracy
The Washington charter saga highlights the workings of charitable plutocracy. Multibillionaire philanthropists use their personal wealth, their tax-exempt private foundations, and their high-profile identities as philanthropists to mold public policy to a degree not possible for other citizens. They exert this excessive influence without public input or accountability. As for the charitable donors who are trying to reshape public education according to their favorite theories or ideological preferences, they are intervening with too heavy a hand in a critical institution that belongs to the public and requires democratic control. But in any public domain, the philanthropist’s will and democratic control are often at odds.
Voters, their elected representatives, grass-roots activists, civic groups, unions, public opinion—all can thwart an uber-philanthropist’s effort to impose his or her vision of the common good on everyone else. Democracy can be a nuisance for the multibillionaire—a fact of life that Bill Gates has often lamented.
In a CNBC panel, aired on May 4, 2015, and titled “If I were education czar…,” Bill Gates discussed the problems he’s had in spreading the “best practices” of charter schools throughout the United States: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.” Asked about his broader goal to redo all of public education, Gates said, “We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact, of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.” The interviewer followed up: “Why do you think that is?” Gates replied, “It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”38
Gates has been making this point for years. During a CNN appearance in 2009, according to the New York Post, Gates said, “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is [sic] where there is a single person responsible.”39
During the Gates Foundation’s U.S. Education Learning Forum in October 2015, journalist Gwen Ifill asked Bill and Melinda Gates to name “the least pleasant surprise” during their previous fifteen years of education-reform work. Bill answered, “For me the most disappointing is that the work can go backwards. In the other areas we work, if we come up with a new malaria drug or a new malaria vaccine, nobody votes to uninvent our malaria vaccine.”40 This was an effective laugh line for Gates, but it’s also a telling formulation; no one has ever voted to “uninvent” a Gates offering. But, on occasion, voters or their representatives have rejected a Gates plan. That’s ordinary democratic policy-making, not uninventing one of his creations.
At times, democracy seems to flummox Gates. In the same interview, he reflected on why there’s been strong opposition to the Common Core State Standards—a detailed set of K–12 benchmarks in math and language arts that the Gates Foundation developed and marketed around the country at a cost of about $263 million.41 “It’s not like somebody’s got some great alternative in terms of the benefits to students,” he said. “It’s more about ‘Oh, we’ll show our autonomy’ than it is about having something better for learning.”
Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work. He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him. His entrée into policy-making is money, not expertise. Talking to Ifill, he brushes off opponents as obstructionists who merely want to flaunt their autonomy—as if disagreeing with him were an exercise in peskiness rather than part of a necessary substantive debate. As for entering the fray as a candidate and asking voters to endorse his ideas, Gates wants no part of it. Questioned at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Media Summit about running for president, he said his current job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was “a very nice office” and that it didn’t require him to raise funds to “try to get elected,” nor does it “have term limits of eight years… I actually think, maybe I’m wrong, that I can have as much impact in that [philanthropic] role as I could in any political role. In any case, I would never run for political office.”42
Multibillionaires who play the dual role of philanthropist and political bankroller range ideologically from progressive to far right, and they spend on myriad causes in addition to public education. At the progressive end are George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. On the far right are the Koch brothers and their David H. Koch Charitable Foundation and Charles Koch Foundation. In addition to Gates, the most aggressive philanthropies in market-based education reform are the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. (Walton supports publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition but otherwise the major education-reform financiers back similar policies.)
Regardless of political stands or projects, all philanthro-barons with their own foundations are generously subsidized by taxpayers. When a baron says, “It’s my money to use as I please,” he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of every tax-exempt foundation’s wealth—39.6 percent at the top tax bracket for filing in 2016—is diverted each year from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.43 Taxpayers subsidize not only the philanthropy of the Koch brothers, Soros, and the others but also their political work. Part of the megaphilanthropist’s wealth goes into a personal cache; part goes into a tax-exempt cache. The money saved by not paying taxes goes wherever the philanthropist wants, including to political work.
American democracy is growing ever more plutocratic—a fact that should worry all admirers of government by the people. Big money rules, but multibillionaires acting as philanthropists aggravate the problem by channeling vast sums into the nation’s immense nonprofit sector. Their top-down modus operandi makes this a powerful tool for shaping public policy according to individual beliefs and whims. And they receive less critical scrutiny than other actors in public life. Most people admire expressions of generosity and selflessness and are loath to find fault. In addition, anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.
So, what to do? The measures required to rein in plutocracy in the United States are plain to see and difficult to achieve: radical campaign finance reform to end the corruption of politics by money, and steeply progressive taxation without loopholes to reduce inequality in wealth and power. Private foundations, too, are due for reform. Congress hasn’t overhauled their regulation since 1969, and watchdog agencies are woefully underfunded. But few, if any, megaphilanthropists give these reforms top priority, although many talk endlessly about reducing inequality and providing everyone with a chance at a good life. The interests and egos of philanthro-barons rarely incline toward curbing plutocracy.
Questioning the work of megaphilanthropists is a tricky business. Many readers of this article will be fuming in this way: Would you rather let children remain illiterate, or allow generous people to use their wealth to give them schools? Would you rather send more money to our bumbling government, or let visionary philanthropists solve society’s problems? Here is a counterquestion: Would you rather have self-appointed social engineers—whose sole qualification is vast wealth—shape public policy according to their personal views, or try to repair American democracy?
1. Sean Corcoran and Christiana Stoddard, “Local Demand For School Choice: Evidence from the Washington Charter School Referenda” (working paper #09-01, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, 2009), 31, Table 1.
2. Heather Cope, Charter Schools and Washington State (Seattle: League of Education Voters Foundation, 2011).
3. “About the Foundation,” Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, accessed March 11, 2016.
4. Corcoran and Stoddard, “Local Demand For School Choice,” 7–8nn7 and 31, Table 1.
5. Ibid., 8n8–9.
6. Ibid., 8n9.
7. Ibid., 31, Table 1.
8. John J. Miller and Karl Zinsmeister with Ashley May, Agenda Setting: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Influencing Public Policy (Washington, DC: The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2015), 80, 88, 114, and 134.
9. “World’s Richest People 2004,” com, accessed March 11, 2016.
10. “World’s Richest People 2005: Donald Fisher,” com, 2005, accessed March 11, 2016.
11. “Forbes 400: The List, 2015 Ranking,” com, March 22, 2016.
12. Union Reporting History: 000-012 Teachers AFL-CIO National Headquarters, United States Department of Labor, accessed March 11, 2016. Accessible via “Online Public Disclosure Room” in Office of Labor-Management Standards. (To find the 2015 AFT and NEA figures, click on “Union Reports and Constitutions and Bylaws” > click on Union Search > fill in AFT-TEACHERS AFL-CIO [drop-down menu will appear] and select Fiscal Year  > click on “submit” > find TEACHERS AFL-CIO NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS and Total Receipts [three columns to the right]. For the NEA, fill in NEA-NATIONAL EDUCATION ASN IND [drop-down menu] and 2015 > submit > find NATIONAL EDUCATION ASN IND NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS and Total Receipts.)
13. CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes), National Charter School Study, Executive Summary 2013 (Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2013), 23. (Reading and math scores have been combined for an average performance score.)
14. Rachel M. Cohen, “When Charters Go Union,” American Prospect, Summer 2015, accessed March 23, 2016.
15. Seattle Times staff, “Washington’s legislative education chairs stalled reforms to improve education,” Seattle Times, February 4, 2012.
16. Office of the Secretary of the State, Elections Division, Filing Initiatives and Referenda in Washington State (Olympia, WA: Office of the Secretary of State, 2013), 4–14.
17. “Proposed Initiatives to the People—2012,” Elections & Voting Division, Washington Secretary of State website, accessed March 13, 2016. (Scroll down to and click on “5/22/2012, 1240.”)
18. “Stand for Children” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016.
19. “League of Education Voters,” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016.
20. Home page and “Client List,” PCI Consultants, Inc., accessed March 13, 2016.
21. Erik Smith, “I-1240 May Not Tie Record After All—1973 Initiative Likely Always to be the Fastest Signature Drive in State History,” Washington State Wire, June 20, 2012.
22. Seattle Times staff, “$2M spent to gather signatures for charter-school initiative,”Seattle Times, July 11, 2012.
23. Brian M. Rosenthal, “Well-funded charter-school initiative has nearly enough signatures to make ballot,” Seattle Times, July 2, 2012.
24. “Cash Contributions for: YES ON 1240 WA COALITION FOR PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS,” Public Disclosure Commission, accessed March 23, 2016. (Sort the columns by “name” to see the date and amount of every contribution made by each donor.) Contributions to the signature drive are dated from June 5 through July 11, 2012. Contributions to the ballot measure campaign are dated later than July 11, 2012. Charter supporters spent a total of $11.4 million on both the signature drive and ballot measure campaign.
26. Melissa Westbrook, “No on 1240 Tent vs Yes on 1240 Tent,” Seattle Schools Community Forum, September 20, 2012.
27. Public Disclosure Commission, accessed March 13, 2016. (To find the total amount raised by opponents, sort the columns by “ballot” and scroll down to 1240.) “No on 1240” took in $26,302.43, and “People for Our Public Schools” took in $701,101.17, creating a total of $727,403.60.)
28. “Cash Contributions for: PEOPLE FOR OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS,” Public Disclosure Commission, accessed March 13, 2016. (To find the teachers unions’ contributions, sort the columns by “amount.”)
29. Ann Dornfeld, “10 Donors Funded 91 percent Of Charter Schools Campaign,” KUOW.org, October 17, 2012.
30. “Initiative Measure No. 1240 Concerns creation of a public charter school system,” November 06, 2012 General Election Results, Washington Secretary of State website, last updated on November 27, 2012.
31. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “New Investments Build on Efforts to Give Public Charter Schools in Washington State a Strong Start,” press release, January 29, 2014. (The list of donations and amounts in the Gates Foundation’s press release is incomplete. See the next paragraph in my article for an account of the full amount—more than $31 million.)
32. “Washington State Charter Schools Association” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016; “Green Dot Public Schools” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016; “Summit Public Schools” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016; “Charter Board Partners” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016; and “Seneca Family of Agencies” in Awarded Grants, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 13, 2016.
33. Leah Todd, “Charter-school panel learns lesson from troubles at First Place,” Seattle Times, updated June 25, 2015.
34. League of Women Voters of Wash. v. State, 184 Wn.2d 393, 355 P.3d 1131 (2015).
35. Letters editor, “State Supreme Court’s education rulings: our unusual constitution at play,” Seattle Times, September 15, 2015.
36. John Higgins, “Charter school advocates raise PAC money,” Seattle Times, December 18, 2015.
37. John Higgins, “Charter-school rescue plan heads to governor’s desk,” Seattle Times, March 10, 2016.
38. Becky Quick, “Gates, Munger & Buffett: If I were education czar…,” Squawk Box, CNBC video, 7:34, May 4, 2015.
39. Carl Campanile, “Gates’ $4 Mil Lesson,” New York Post, August 17, 2009.
40. Gwen Ifill, “Conversation with Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Gwen Ifill—U.S. Education Learning Forum,” YouTube video, 31:26, from U.S. Education Learning Forum held on October 7, 2015, posted by “GatesFoundation,” October 9, 2015.
41. Michael Rothfeld, “Financial Woes Plague Common-Core Rollout,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2015.
42. Michael Casey, “Bill Gates For President? ‘I Would Never Run For Political Office,’ He Says,” Huffington Post, October 9, 2012, accessed March 13, 2016.
43. Kyle Pomerleau, 2016 Tax Brackets, Fiscal Fact No. 486 (Washington, DC: Tax Foundation, 2015), 1.
Microsoft makes a shitty product. That Bill Gates can’t see or grasp this calls into question his judgment on just about everything. There’s every reason to expect education to Microsoft its way to a similar shitty outcome.
I’m curious if someone who knows more about Gates’ history can speculate on how he became radicalized on the subject. Reading Wikipedia I see that he attended a private prep school at age 13 where he started programming in BASIC, maybe in the myth he’s created about his own life this was the big turning point?
Larry Ellison said “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.” I think the super-rich have drunk the cool-aid, which is understandable because it is the only common ideology that justifies their wealth and power. JMG likes to talk about the demented elites, and believing their own propaganda might be one aspect of it.
JMG? My brain’s saying “Galbraith”, but I can’t think of one with an M middle initial -__-
I’ve heard stories from Harvard (IIRC he was to have been class of ’77 and I was class of ’79, and I heard these in the 1980s, so they were not too stale) that he was a total jerk. Would get up in class and argue with the profs. He apparently dropped out because he thought he was smarter than the faculty. So it’s not surprising that he’d have no interest in dealing with educational professionals (and in fairness, most graduate ed programs are not all that hot…but that doesn’t mean you blow off the experience of people who teach every day).
Now on the one hand, Harvard wasn’t into computer science and its applied math program wasn’t a selling point (which is one place a guy who was interested in coding might wind up). But on the other, if you were serious about academics, you could find plenty of good (and demanding) courses.
This seems to match the demeanor displayed in the quoted interviews. He wants it his way… because, as Frank would describe, it is a “no-brainer”. Why can’t all the plebeian fools shut up and listen to the successful, professional intellectual… GAWD!
I think it’s highly likely that Gates and Allen actually believe that they are smarter than everyone else — their gigantic piles of money prove it! Like the experiment with the openly rigged Monopoly games, those who the system privileges find ways to tell themselves they are actually better than other people.
Yes, its an interesting question, because in other respects he’s proved himself quite thoughtful and some of the work of the Gates Foundation is very good.
Partially, I think that there is a huge resistance among the super rich to accept that the core reason for poverty is not education, or disease, its a lack of money. And they have a lack of money primarily because other people have way too much of it. By distracting attention from this simple fact, they can sleep at night knowing they are ‘doing good’.
But there is also I think a general contempt among ‘doers’ (especially those from a technical background) against ‘thinkers’, i.e. academics. I’ve come across this in all sorts of contexts. I think there is a frustration among people who see themselves as ‘builders’ and ‘makers’ with education – to them, it should be all about some positive action to make it better, while almost all educational academics I know recognise that it really isn’t that simple, that educational structures are far less important than the overall socio-economic context of the school or other educational facility. There is oceans of proper research pointing this out, but this seems to offend some part of the ‘doer’ mindset.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen went to a private prep school called Lakeside. Keep in mind that this was in the era of integration and white-flight. So, all of this conflict is happening over bussing and then where do Bill and Paul go next? To Boston, the epicenter of anti-bussing. Next, Bill and Paul go into an industry starved for qualified workers. It is not much of a stretch to assume that these billionaires formed their opinions on broken schools at a moment of extreme angst and really haven’t changed or mediated their perspective.
Another point, is why don’t these guys just start private schools? Why do they have to get public money?
Why should rich people, the hallowed job creators, spend money on themselves when they can get the government’s tax payers to give them money? It seems as though you believe in fairness or something similarly outlandish!
Because they are simply selfless patriots selflessly trying to improve our public schools!!!! Any other conclusion is obviously biased against Great Men.
Actually, Paul Allen went to Washington State University in Pullman, WA, not known for anti-busing sentiments or elitism. Lakeside School is a private day school with good academics and a tradition of serving wealthy Seattle’s families, not a segregation academy. Bill Gates’s father was a prominent Seattle corporate lawyer (his wife was a librarian at the University of Washington) who, it is thought, gave Gates and Allen good legal advice on how to con IBM into letting them turn someone else’s hastily acquired and mediocre operating system into the most lucrative monopoly ever.
Paul Allen’s father was the Director of Libraries for the University of Washington; his mother was also a librarian (I’m not sure where). I’m fairly certain that neither was abundantly paid. (Paul Allen left Microsoft in early years after an illness.)
Mary Gates was a UW Regent, which would mean that she could not also have been an employee of the university.
I’ve heard tales of Bill Sr bringing boxes of electronic stuff to Lakeside, doing just about anything in an effort to get his kid to remain in school. Bill went to Seattle Public Schools until he was in his teens; he’d have been a challenge to raise, and his parents did a remarkable job.
As I understand, both Bill Sr and his wife Mary were very active in civic endeavors, and it was Bill Sr who prompted his son to think beyond MS and consider socially responsible ways to use his phenomenal wealth.
Lakeside has an interesting history; the McCaw brothers (McCaw Cellular, later AT&T) also went through that school.
Sorry about mixing up the mothers. I was repeating something someone once told me. Anyway, as billionaires go Bill and Paul are fairly benign. They seem to be pushing charter schools because they believe they will improve public education. Not sure why they still think that as evidence to the contrary mounts.
RE: Another point, is why don’t these guys just start private schools? Why do they have to get public money?
It’s my understanding they’re not into creating better schools for rich kids, but want to focus on improving education for poor kids.
OTOH, I personally don’t see how charter schools is critical to that mission. As a WA voter, I’ve voted against charter schools each time. It just seems like a dangerous end-around to problems related to teacher HR issues / seniority.
Refresher – “What is Common Core… Myth versus Fact
Common Core is often written by its initials CCSS which stands for Common Core State Standards. The idea of national standards may seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, these national standards have turned into a nightmare for students, parents and teachers. The marketing myth or slogan factory for Common Core is that CCSS is a set of “State led national standards which prepare students to be career and college ready.” In fact, Common Core is Gates led not State led. The standards were hastily written by a few corporate consultants – not by teachers or child development specialists. The Common Core standards were so poorly written that they have been condemned by many educational professionals as being not as good as the prior State standards that CCSS replaced. This is a problem because Common Core standards are patented and do not allow for more than minor changes.
Worst of all, Common Core Standards do not prepare students for college or careers. For example, even if a student passed all of the math standards by completing the fake common core tests, they would not be ready to take college level courses. Nor would they be ready to get a good paying job. So the whole Common Core program is nothing but a scam based on a series of lies. The real purpose of Common Core is first to create billions of dollars in profit for the Education Industrial Complex and then second to destroy public schools and public school students to such an extent that the general public will demand that public schools be closed and replaced with private for profit schools that are exempt from the Common Core standards.
Who Owns CCSS?
The Common Core standards are patented by a couple of fake non-profit groups called the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officials (CCSSO). Both of these groups are unelected, private organizations who get most of their funding (millions of dollars) from Bill Gates through the Gates Foundation. They own the copyright to the Common Core standards. This really means that Bill Gates controls the copyright to Common Core standards.
Because these two groups are private organizations, there is no public record of how they make decisions.
If the Common Core standards were so poorly written, why did over 40 States adopt the CCSS?
In order to receive billions of dollars in federal funding through a corrupt federal program called Race to the Top (RTTT), States were forced to quickly adopt Common Core tests and standards. In other words, States were forced to adopt Common Core through a series of bribes and punishments. Most States adopted CCSS before the standards were even written! The states caved to federal blackmail because they needed the money due to the recession.” – snip
Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education
“Unfortunately, many corrupt State legislators still promote Common Core because that is how they get money for their reelection campaigns. They use the excuse that we need to keep Common Core in order to get the Federal funding associated with Race To The Top – a corrupt program run by a crook named Arne Duncan – a former basketball player and current snake oil salesman who knows nothing about education or children but was appointed as the person to run the US Department of Education.”
Disheveled Marsupial…. File under Flexians….
A goal of having everybody get a college education makes no sense. At present something like 25-30% of the US population receives a college degree. This corresponds to the percentage of the US population with IQ’s above 108. Further expansion of the proportion of the population receiving a college education is not possible without greatly decreasing the standards for such an education which would in turn lead to a decline in the value of such degrees. Already outside fields such as engineering, college education is mostly a matter of “signaling”. About 50% of US college graduates are employed in jobs not requiring a college degree. Outside fields such as engineering the US needs more college degrees like it needs a hole in the head.
Just watched a video on Youtube yesterday with the two actual educational experts who were on the panel devising Common Core denouncing it to anyone who would listen. There are actually a bunch of video of them. These two folks were brought on as advisers but neither would sign-off on the standards that were created. Pretty bad when the people you thought you’d bribed to play along won’t…
I’d be interested in the link. There are others I know who’d also be interested.
**Scumbags don’t ‘race to the top’…….they float!
**gates, allen, zuckerberg, brin, cook, holmes, fiorina, whitman, etc, etc, etc,
……and then they where gods!…….or rather, demons…….
When I first learned about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Thanos (I know that is misspelled), I was impressed, and I believed the hype. Wow, they can get meaningful clinical information by drawing minute quantities of blood! What a great advance. Well, after a while, I learned more…
Bill Gates also thinks he knows how to feed people even though he has no background or training in that either. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, research and assistance in Africa heavily supports GMO’s. http://ecowatch.com/2016/04/06/africa-gmo-threat/
I heavily support GMOs.
Me too. GMO are examples of science and technology… and it’s how GMOs (the technology) are used that is important.
Looking at the article, I don’t see how Cassava with more Vitamin A, Iron and protein or salt tolerant rice is a bad thing.
Only there is an assumption of the real value of that man-manipulated so-called “food” as far as how it is received in the human body. What’s wrong with GMO’s? Well, if your body doesn’t recognize GMO food as food, then what is the use of it?
I happen to live in a body that can’t not tolerate GMO foods, especially GMO based vegetable oil. When I eat foods made with GMO oils, what happens? My body violently REJECTS that food outright. That means my entire intestinal contents are emptied in my body’s attempt to rid itself of a VERY foreign material (ie, GMO foods). It’s a terrifying and painful experience. It’s amazing that the american public is so under-informed.
My very uneducated take on Bill Gates is that Bill Gates is all (and only) about Bill Gates. How can he make more money, wield more power and influence without actually running for political office (which may not be off the table, but I don’t know).
Gates is clearly a smart guy, but he’s not above playing dirty tricks to get ahead. I guess that’s really how the game is played, so no big surprises. But he’s another legacy brat who did work hard, but nonetheless started out with a lot of big advantages that many don’t have. Then thinks he’s the smartest, bestest Bear out there and is better suited to make decisions about anything… no matter what.
His wife, Melinda, seems pretty integrally involved in a lot of his “philanthropic” efforts. She used to work for MS, and I have to assume that she’s probably also very smart and possibly also from a privileged background (I simply don’t know). I suspect she has some influence over the decisions they’ve made as to where they focus their energies and money.
I suspect that both believe that they’re doing “good works” and that they are selflessly motivated. But time and again, one can see how what Gates does benefits Gates, and often it’s at the expense of other possibilities. The Charter School thing is but one example, as his deep involvement with Monsanto and the GMOs to allegedly “eradicate hunger world wide.”
Don’t trust him. Don’t venerate him like many do.
I think the fundamental argument is about education in the US and not who applies it. It seems that much of America is for education in general but against the specifics. They believe in the three R’s but that is about it.
It is not just fundamentalists any more who fight against the curriculum. While trying to ban the teaching of evolution is one of the most egregious examples of intentional stupidity and moral degeneracy, teaching programs are filled with propaganda and convenient omissions in the most liberal public schools.
A major stumbling block to education is funding. Teachers are vilified in the press and popular opinion. “They are lazy and greedy. They work short hours and have the whole summer off. They have overly generous pensions and pay.” The reality is teachers (at all levels and even at top universities…and here I mean the people who do the teaching) are poorly paid. Their benefits have been stripped and no longer offered to new employees in many places. In under-funded schools they are justifiable depressed and unmotivated.
A nation which has no qualms over spending tens of billions of dollars building an out-dated warplane that can’t fly and has no obvious mission but rises up in arms when there is talk of increasing school budgets is a lost and hopeless nation. Those who cry “Get rid of the Department of Education!” seem only to want to offer ignorance and Bible studies in exchange.
I don’t agree with charter schools. If they are funded by an elite, the curriculum will more or less tailored to their world view. Charter schools will serve as a straw man for arguments for and against funding public education.
America basically needs to get its head out its ass and spend more money on education. It needs to accept that poor minorities need a massive infusion of money for education and social programs at schools (sports, music, arts, clubs, etc.).
I have no hope whatsoever that America is capable of doing such a thing. Which is a shame because as a world power we are essentially creating an international empire run by the elite and managed by ignorant thugs with either M-16’s or bank accounts.
(I was educated k-12 in public, went to a top private university, then a masters in public university in Europe and now teach in private business schools in Europe, so I think I have a pretty broad experience)
I don’t see the problem with Charters mostly based on the lines that form to get into them but you’re work is interesting and well thought out research. Thanks
Excellent post. It stuns me that a marketing strategist (Vicki Phillips, until 2015, head of the Gates Foundation’s education program) has been considered an “expert” in education (I read her CV – I do not believe she has ever taught a single child). She came to the Gates Foundation from Portland Public Schools, where she pushed through standardized testing based teacher merit programs and destroyed the service workers union. Like many other school districts, Portland Public Schools has issues – class size, low high school graduation rates, conflicts between specialized education and neighborhood schools, and funding, but her zeal in pushing unnecessary and even damaging programs pushed the district backwards. I would encourage Bill and Melinda to work on curing Malaria, or even Zika – and to leave our kids the hell alone.
Anyone have the actual link to the article? Yves just links to the trade mag and the site search function returns an error for me.
I think its funny how much the reproduction of the article paints a picture that is ambiguous wrt to outsized and undemocratic influence philanthropy wields. How many times did the monied interest lose despite raising millions of dollars? Its almost like the low money groups won…a lot! Seems to me that after the legal ruling, its only because of the corruption of Inslee and Co. that they still have a chance.
But in WA, its always been the case that the politicians are for sale (2 stadiums, a tunnel, and this just to name a few off the top of my head). Thats a problem with the people being elected, not the money being raised by billionaires for pet projects/looting mechanisms.
You seem to be under the illusion that popular sentiment and political policy are related. While that’s a nice idea, it simply isn’t so. Instead, elected politicians tend to spout popular rhetoric during campaigns, but open their door wide and often for their sponsors once in office. That is, money itself is the corruption in U.S. politics. Unfortunately, the SCOTUS sees it differently.
That comment totally makes sense when you don’t think about it.
1) Your espoused political model only works with unknown participants (politicians) in a one-off game. The actual situation has neither of those factors. Most of the current politicians, especially Inslee, are not first term appointments. They have histories which are relevant. Voters approved them regardless. Voters can also vote them out if they chose. Politicians know this and weigh the benefits of being “bought” against the potential consequences on election day. It appears that the current (relevant) politicians do not fear being ousted.
2) Even ignoring the above, saying money is sufficient for the undermining of democracy is shown false by the very facts of the article Yves copied. There were numerous occasions where the big money players lost. Therefore, money cannot be sufficient. You need voters and so voters also have some (causal) responsibility for outcomes.
Living in Seattle sometimes made you feel like a small mammal that has to remain vigilant to avoid being trampled by the giant dinosaurs roaming around the civic landscape — Gates, Allen, Bezos, etc. They have consistently foiled the wishes of Washington voters. Paul Allen’s sports stadium was rammed down Seattle taxpayers’ throats, for another example, with a publicly-funded “emergency” election that cost us $4 million, this was after it already had been defeated in a previous election. Emergency elections would normally be for things such as disaster relief, but somehow Allen corrupted the process and got his way.
These billionaires have rendered entire Seattle neighborhoods unrecognizable, while successfully turning the city into an elite residence for upper-class professionals. My Seattle friends who didn’t manage to buy a house when they were more affordable are now completely S.O.L. and I don’t know how much longer many of them will be able to afford to live there. One younger friend of mine had his rent raised from $1000 to $3000 when his lease ran out. I’m happy I left the city for a more rural spot in eastern WA, but the influence of these people permeates the entire state to some degree.
Unlike other commenters, I don’t attribute ill intentions to Bill Gates, nor the Foundation. I think they are taking on a very complex set of problems, some of them social, some economic, some related to the tax system, and some related to systems that are too big to function sufficiently well.
IMVHO, humans have been walking upright at least 300,000 years.
The first cities are only 10,000 years old.
The first pictographic writings we know of are about 4,000 years old.
The first alphabetic writings are only about 3,000 years old.
The first schools in Washington Territory taught boys who spoke Chinook, Chehalis, and other languages of the lower Columbia River, around the 1820s IIRC. Those boys were taught English, and writing was revolutionary for them.
The first public schools in Washington state, paid for by taxpaying citizens, only go back about 120 years.
Washington became a state in 1889 – 30+ years after the Civil War ended, and about 70 years after the first schoolboys learned English.
Washington State’s “Barefoot Schoolboy Act” was passed in 1895, and it was a legislative achievement beyond anything in human history — finally, every child was allowed to learn at public expense. At that time, the school year was about 3 months long, because that was all communities could afford.
High schools with science labs (bunsen burners were a big deal) only came into existence around the 1930s.
At that time, grammar and Greek were still part of the curriculum.
There was — and is! — a widespread assumption that learning should happen for every kid.
It’s only in the late 20th century that more insight into learning disabilities has explained why some kids ‘drop out’, or now cost a sh!tload of money to get through 12th grade because they need a lot of special attention.
The federal government has handed out uncounted ‘unfunded mandates’ based on assumptions about family life and kids that come right out of ‘Father Knows Best’ and the mid-1960s. But the funding has not kept up with the special needs kids have today. Also, add kids who don’t speak English.
The local schools all over Puget Sound have had to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ because they are required by law to let any child attend — but they are often horrendously overcrowded because the local counties and cities do not make developers pay their fair share of school construction fees, and it takes 5-10 years to build a school (assuming you can obtain land). The schools have been robbing their capital facilities to underwrite special needs education, and at some point they couldn’t make the numbers work out. (And I kid you not — you would not believe the numbers! The child may not even be a US citizen, but if they reside within the district, even if they have expensive special needs, they are supposed to be educated.)
Meanwhile, parents are screaming that their kids aren’t getting a quality education…
Or else, the parents are deep in debt from trying to buy housing in a decent school district… so if their kids have problems, these already-stressed parents are on a very short fuse.
The public schools have been vilified, while having to deal with kids with special needs (I’m including wheelchairs, diapers and full-time aides), plus dealing with 10 year olds who are exhausted because they were up gaming till midnight. But hey, it’s easier to trash the teacher’s unions than take on the social problems, or unravel the absolute, disgusting rot at the local government level that hands out building permits for schools that are supposed to magically grow new classrooms. (The deception, double-talk, evasions, and blind refusal to deal with reality would make even Hillary or Trump proud.)
As a culture, and as a state, we have not taken the time to collect a brief historical perspective on what has been accomplished in the last 100 years of human history. It’s actually mind-boggling to contemplate the community college systems, the university systems, and the K-12 systems that have developed in an historically brief amount of time.
In Washington State, particularly Puget Sound, education is next to godliness.
I swear, people would give their left kidney to get their kids into a good school; Gates is almost certainly hearing from people that he knows about their frustrations with respect to their children’s educations.
If we ever focus on what it means to be human – to play music, create art, build boats and ships, plant gardens, make textiles and pots, build motherboards and robots, at that point we will have a world class educational system. But I don’t see that as the role of billionaires.
I don’t blame Gates, and for that fact I also don’t blame Gov Jay Inslee (who inherited a truckload of problems).
IMVHO, we have not had the kind of tough leadership to explain to people why they need to ‘pony up’, what’s at stake for them, why a PUBLIC system is better for everyone — special needs, prodigies, or whoever — and how the system of land permitting has gutted every school system in the state, due to incompetent, timid public elected (all of of whom have to rely on campaign donations).
Gates is trying to provide leadership because it has not come from the public sector. That’s the real tragedy.
At least he’s trying to do something worthwhile. I’ll give him that much credit.
“Gates is trying to provide leadership because it has not come from the public sector.”
Decades of corporatist agency metamorphosing into neoliberalism can have that effect imo…
Skippy…. Sorry, but, Gates doing the privatize the commons shtick, under the guise of well meaning, is just too much to sallow after all the anti trust stuff… a bridge too far methinks…
I have no opinions. I came here to learn. I suppose the reason charter schools exist is that, like private schools, they please the parents. I’m not sure quite why. The charter school my son chose for his children has a dreadful physical plant compared to the public school.
I live in Washington state (Seattle) and sent my kids to private schools because the public schools are at best mediocre (except for a few wealthy suburbs and a couple high schools). Reasonable minds can differ about the proper approach to public education, but at least Mr. Gates is attempting to something different, which is more than I can say for the education establishment in this state.
By the way, while I agree with the main point of the article, foundations have always tried to influence public policy. For example, in the US Civil Rights movement, trying to fund CORE to kill SNCC. It was explicitly stated at the time, not a matter of interpretation.