Gates Foundation Follies (Part 1)

Jason Riley’s interview with Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal was not as great as Riley’s interview with me last week (shameless plug for my new mini-book), but it was still very illuminating.

In particular, the Gates interview confirmed two things about the Foundation’s education efforts: 1) they’ve realized that the focus of their efforts has to be on the political control of schools and 2) they are uninterested in using that political influence to advance market forces in education. Instead, the basic strategy of the Gates Foundation is to use science (or, more accurately, the appearance of science) to identify the “best” educational practices and then use political influence to create a system of national standards, curricular materials, and testing to impose those “best practices” on schools nationwide.

The Gates Foundation came to understand the necessity of political influence over schools with the failure of their previous small schools strategy.  Under that strategy they tried to achieve reform by paying school districts to break-up larger high schools into smaller ones.  The problem with that strategy is that even the Gates Foundation does not have nearly enough money to buy systemic reform one school at a time.

School districts currently spend over $600 billion per year and the Gates Foundation only has $34 billion in total assets.  With the practice of spending only about 5% of assets each year and given the large (and effective) efforts the Foundation makes in developing country health-care, Gates only spends a couple hundred million dollars on education reform each year. Given the small share of total education spending Gates could offer, most public districts refused to entertain the Gates strategy of smaller schools, others took the money but failed to implement it properly, and others reversef the reform once the Gates subsidies ended.

The way I described the situation in my chapter “Buckets into the Sea” in the 2005 book, With the Best of Intentions, edited by Rick Hess is:

Philanthropists simply don’t have enough resource to reshape the education system on their own; all their giving put together amounts to only a tiny fraction of total education spending, so their dollars alone can’t make a significant difference.  In order to make a real difference, philanthropists must support programs that redirect how future public education dollars are spent.

And in 2008 I repeated this claim, saying: “total private giving to public education is a tiny portion of total spending on schools.  All giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total spending.  It’s basically rounding error.”

I don’t know whether the Gates Foundation was influence by my writing or whether they arrived at the same conclusions independently, but they are now articulating those same conclusions, often with the same exact words:

“It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error.”

This understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

While the focus of the Gates Foundation on influencing education policy is sensible, the particular political approach they have chosen is doomed to fail and attempting it is likely to be counter-productive.  In Part 2 of this post I will explain how the new strategy Gates has decided to pursue is flawed.

To give you a taste of what is coming in Part 2, the arguments can be summarized as: 1) Education does not lend itself to a single “best” approach, so the Gates effort to use science to discover best practices is unable to yield much productive fruit; 2) As a result, the Gates folks have mostly been falsely invoking science to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support; 3) Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort; 4) The scale of the political effort required by the Gates strategy of imposing “best” practices is forcing Gates to expand its staffing to levels where it is being paralyzed by its own administrative bloat; and 5) The false invocation of science as a political tool to advance policies and practices not actually supported by scientific evidence is producing intellectual corruption among the staff and researchers associated with Gates, which will undermine their long-term credibility and influence.

Tune in for Part 2.

-Jay P. Greene

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College