Gates Foundation Enables ALEC to Privatize Public Education

In the war being fought over the survival of public education, the privatizers are forging the future. Is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aiding and abetting them? I don’t know how you feel about Bill Gates, the chair of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest people in the world. Many people appreciate what he’s accomplished. In philanthropic circles, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—which gives some $3 billion annually, especially in fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and mother-child deaths in underdeveloped countries around the world—is highly regarded.


However, late last year, at a Hudson Institute-sponsored panel titled “Living with the Gates Foundation” Tim Ogden, editor of Philanthropy Action, pointed out that Gates is “creating the ball, building the team, hiring the referees,” and “funding the instant replay.” According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Caroline Preston’s report, Laura Freschi, of New York University’s Development Research Institute said, “it’s not out of the question that one day a reader might devour an article about a Gates-supported health project printed on the pages of a newspaper that gets Gates’s money, reported by a journalist who received media training paid for by Gates, citing research by scientists financed by Gates.”


In an appearance with the host of ABC’s “This Week With Christiane Amanpour,” Gates said that, while he favored raising taxes on the wealthy, he didn’t think that would solve the “deficit gap.” He also said that he didn’t think President Obama was waging class warfare on the rich, joking that, as far as he knows, there are no barricades in the streets being manned by the wealthy. Gates does have a legion of critics. In his biography of the late Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson reported that Jobs told him that Gates is “basically unimaginative, has never invented anything…he just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”


In 2010, I wrote a piece about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s relationship to the chemical company Monsanto and the agribusiness giant Cargill. The story pointed out that the Foundation had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23 million in the second quarter of 2010. Monsanto has, for years, had a negative impact on small farmers, especially in Africa.


Some critics are also highly skeptical about some of the Gates Foundation’s choices, particularly as it relates to education in the United States. According to the Gates Foundation website, their education mission in the U.S. is pretty straightforward: “… to dramatically improve education so that all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. We seek to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and career and prepared to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate with value in the workplace.” In November the foundation announced that it had awarded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a grant of $376,635 for its work on an assortment of education projects over a 22-month period. The Gates Foundation’s official description of the grant reads: “to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate, and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement.”


Robin Rogers, an associate professor of sociology and the author of The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation, in a recent piece at the Education Optimists titled “Billionaire Education Policy,” pointed out that the Gates Foundation’s grant to ALEC was aimed at “influenc[ing] state budget making—where the rubber hits the road on education policy.” Rogers noted that after the grant’s announcement, “Twitter was buzzing with the news” and the debate revolved around “whether this constituted a Republican takeover of the state budget process, a Gates Foundation takeover of ALEC, or both. No one suggested it was a victory for democracy.” Since its founding nearly 40 years ago, the raison d’etre of the American Legislative Exchange Council has been to influence state legislatures on behalf of corporations and so-called family values advocates, but mostly corporations. As the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project points out, the organization is “not a lobby” and “not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.”


Primarily funded by corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations, “ALEC is a non-profit organization made up primarily of a ‘who’s who’ of the extreme right.” While the Washington, DC-based ALEC may not be responsible for all of the mayhem going on in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, and Michigan (with more states certain to follow), it has historically played a role in shaping pro-corporate legislation in a number of states. According to ALEC Exposed, ALEC-sponsored “bills would privatize public education, crush teacher’s unions, and push American universities to the right. Among other things, these bills make education a private commodity rather than a public good and reverse America’s modern innovation of promoting learning and civic virtue through public schools staffed with professional teachers for children from all backgrounds.”


As Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, pointed out in the Nation, ALEC’s mission is “to defund and redesign public schools.” Underwood detailed how ALEC has been promoting “choice” and “vouchers” for more than 20 years. Underwood wrote: “ALEC’s most ambitious and strategic push toward privatizing education came in 2007 through a publication called School Choice and State Constitutions, which proposed a list of programs tailored to each state.” Several states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah, and Indiana enacted ALEC-suggested legislation. According to Underwood, ALEC’s agenda includes:


“Introducing market factors into teaching, through bills like the National Teacher Certification Fairness Act.”


“Privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives, especially through the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act and Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, whose many spinoffs encourage the creation of private schools for specific populations: children with autism, children in military families, etc. 

“Increasing student testing and reporting, through more ‘accountability,’ as seen in the Education Accountability Act, Longitudinal Student Growth Act, One-to-One Reading Improvement Act and the Resolution Supporting the Principles of No Child Left Behind.

Chipping away at local school districts and school boards, through its 2009

Innovation Schools and School Districts Act and more, proposals like the Public School Financial Transparency Act and School Board Freedom to Contract Act would allow school districts to outsource auxiliary services.”


Admittedly, the $376,635 grant from the Gates Foundation is just a drop from the foundation’s bucket and it will not guarantee ALEC’s success in achieving its goals, but it will help. However, what the foundation’s grant might contribute to is yet another in a series of ginned-up reports produced by ALEC’s education team touting the success of charter schools and voucher programs and citing more reasons to bust teachers unions. It will design sample legislation for its members to introduce in state houses across the country. The privatization of public education will be moved forward. This is not a project that Bill or Melinda Gates should be proud of. 


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.