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Bill Gates: Money to learn, or burn?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Bill Gates’ comments to the AFT convention and his foundation’s millions of dollars of donations are generating frontpage coverage, and the critical chatter that comes with it.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has changed its education funding priorities over time, from an emphasis on small schools to a focus on teacher quality and core standards. At the AFT convention Bill Gates explained, "We need to understand what makes teachers great and help all teachers learn from them. This is worth our best combined efforts.” Or, as Valerie Strauss summarized, “Bill Gates, one of the smartest and richest guys ever in the history of smart and rich guys, told the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers that he just realized that teaching is super important. Really.”

Gates’ comments take on added significance since his foundation backs up its priorities with hundreds of millions of dollars. The clout that level of investment lends led Andrew Rotherman to ask, “So the unelected government spoke to the AFT but not the elected one?” The Washington Post’s front page story described how the Gates Foundation is able to support financially and publicly policies that the federal department of education cannot touch politically, such as codifying national standards.

But being free of political constraints is a double-edged sword; while the money is appreciated, the influence might not be. Bloomburg Businessweek described how “now a new generation of philanthropic billionaires, including Gates…want public education to run like a business.” In business, experimentation and competition are vital, but in education that experimentation takes place on children and children could end up being the losers in competition:

“Like a baseball player who won’t bunt to advance a teammate, a teacher may think twice about giving a student extra help if a colleague gets the credit – and the pay raise.”

Does running public education like a business make sense? How are you seeing multi-million dollar carrots changing education? Would you like to see the money spent elsewhere?

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