Gates Keepers

At the last Network for Public Education, there was a long and passionate conversation about the foundations that give money to impact education. Warren Buffett has a foundation that funds scholarships to low-income students, among other things. Goldie Hawn has a foundation that focuses on training school teachers and education support professionals on social emotional learning. There are many educational philanthropists. Of course, some are more controversial than others.

For the Walton Family Foundation, the problem with public schools is the “public” part, and the solution is always their silver bullet of school vouchers, even though study after study says school choice makes little if any impact on student learning. For the Broad Foundation it’s All Charters All the Time no matter the continuing mixed bag of results with a continuum of charters ranging from truly innovative to truly fraudulent.

Then there’s Bill and Melinda.


The Gates Foundation defies easy labels.

Here’s what they say on their website:

We are focused on results. Those that can be measured. And those measured in ways beyond numbers. We see individuals, not issues. We are inspired by passion, and compassion for the wellbeing of people. Our methods are based on logic, driven by rigor, results, issues, and outcomes. Our innovation means trying new things, learning from our mistakes, and consistently refining our approach. Our strategies help us define our path to success, but our effectiveness is based in the aggregate power of our initiatives to impact holistic change.

The Gates Foundation is not the Walton or Broad Foundations. Originally, much of their work was on global health in struggling parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. They fund research on HIV prevention, malaria and the resurgence of polio. Then, they expanded their portfolio to education. They’ve funded Teach for America; and, on opposite end of the spectrum, they fund the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (which the NEA helped found) and they support National Board Certification, which is the gold standard of career teacher professionalism. At times they’ve been convinced by corporate reformers who’ve never stepped in front of a class of actual children. At times they’ve been convinced by us, the education unions who represent the men and women who know the names of the students we serve. The Gates Foundation is, well, complicated.

I was asked at the NPE conference to give a simple answer to a question that is not so simple: Would my union, the NEA, accept Gates grants? The fact is that, no, NEA does not directly take funds from the Gates Foundation. Our union’s mission is to advocate for the professional integrity of our members in service to the education of the Whole Child: critical, creative mind, healthy body and ethical, compassionate character. Outside funders don’t drive our mission. We drive funders to our members and their ideas, projects, and solutions that help their students prepare for the lives they want to live. Our union organized an independent foundation for the very purpose of connecting philanthropists with the creative work of our member practitioners in classrooms across the country. These caring professionals are finding success by seeing their students as more than a test score.


And in service to those members and those students, we will continue to work with powerful partners, foundations and institutions dedicated to educational innovation, educator empowerment, student health, and parent engagement. Over the years, we’ve helped educators connect with many donors, including the Gates Foundation, and more and more, these donors have wisely supported local, practicing public school educators who are rocking the student-centered world with innovative practices.

I’ve seen groundbreaking work in teacher and support professional home visits to create new bridges between families and schools; advanced physics classes for kids in poverty who would have been placed in remedial math if not for union-supported, student-centered STEM training for educators; schools that use culture, the arts and second languages to bring joy to learning. This is important work that deserves to be lifted up and supported. With the corporate school model crumbling from the weight of it’s own absurdities of standardize, privatize and de-professionalize, there is a growing space for innovations led by educators, with the support of their unions, that will show the way toward true Whole Child transformation and leave in the dust the factory theory of assembly line education. Our members are already filling that space.

We want donors seeking to fund education transformation to see what we see in our union members; in the teachers and education support professionals who work inside America’s public schools, colleges and universities. This work has no silver bullets. It’s not a gimmick. It’s built around solid, powerful research that shows the importance of connections with community and family; collaborative authority of empowered educators and humanizing the relationships between students and their teachers and the support staff that serve them.


The corporate school reformers aren’t going anywhere. There’re too many financial interests in franchise charter companies and the bloated testing industry for them to simply disappear. They’ll be lined up with a new, improved, slick repackaged sales pitch of the same worn, disproven factory-based theories that suit the interests of their investors, and they’ll be hoping that the marketplace of education philanthropists will buy it. They’ll sell vouchers to the Walton Foundation. They’ll sell franchise charters to the Broad Foundation.

But any organization that’s driven by logic, results, learning from mistakes, and refining its approach to impact holistic change will look closely at the evidence produced from decades of failed experiments with corporate school models and see no reason to invest in the now debunked Test and Punish motivational models. Solid evidence shows that empowering the professionals who work closest with students is the way forward. The transforming power that lifts all children and gives them the opportunity to live the full possibilities of their lives will be found in the steady hands and passionate hearts of those who know their students.

We challenge all education philanthropists who experimented with corporate school models to honestly look at where true Whole Child transformation is happening. The evidence is clear where investments should be made: in the ideals of public school communities designed as a public good and in the ideas of educators who hug those kids every day. Look to the work of practicing teachers and support professionals who are transforming teaching and expanding learning; whose solutions are impacting hopeful, happy lives; whose results can indeed be measured, and measured in ways beyond numbers.

3 Responses to “Gates Keepers”

  1. LT

    How disappointing.

  2. AH

    Great response, Lily. The Gates Foundation does not equal the Broad or Walton Foundations. They have fundamentally different motivations underlying their investments. Gates is focused on expanding access to opportunity through any means that works — not pitting one education sector against another due to base ideology. As you mentioned, anyway, NEA does not have to take Gates money. In many ways, NEA is the profession’s answer to Gates — driving the same innovations that benefit students, but driven by teachers.

  3. AH

    Well said, Lily. In my opinion, the Gates Foundation does not equal the Broad or Walton Foundations. Gates has a very different motivation underlying their investments — to expand access to opportunity for low-income, minorities, and they will back any means that is promising or has been shown to work. They have abandoned many investments that have been shown to have not worked on the whole. Meanwhile the MO for Broad and Walton is to pit one education sector against another based on crude ideology. NEA does not need Gates money, nor should it seek it. NEA is already the profession’s counterweight to all three foundations, investing deeply in innovations that benefit students, but driven by teachers.


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