The Surprising Backers Behind Common Core in Massachusetts
The state Board of Education is expected to vote this fall on a critical Common Core-related issue — which standardized test more than half a million Massachusetts public school students will take: the Common Core-aligned PARCC or the 17-year-old homegrown MCAS test, which has been adjusted to fit the new standards.
While the PARCC has its fair share of critics (an issue highlighted in August’s baystateparent), so does the overarching Common Core standards, which are designed to better prepare students for post-secondary education and careers. Common Core also has hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the $40 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a situation that critics say blurs the line between philanthropy and policy making.
In September 2009, R. Kirk Kramer, a partner in the Boston-based Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit business consultancy, sent a letter to then-state Secretary of Education Paul Reville and Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, saying his company would work “to help you with both strategy development and your proposal to secure Race to the Top funding.” The letter was shared with baystateparent.
More on Common Core in Massachusetts:
“Our understanding is that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will fund part of Bridgespan’s support for this work,” Kramer continued. “In addition a group of local foundations … will also provide funding support.”
In other words, the Gates Foundation paid $250,000 —about half of Bridgespan’s fees — so the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) could successfully apply for a $250 million Race to the Top grant from the U. S. Department of Education (DOE). The grants were designed to make states implement Common Core. Winning the grant in 2010 obligated the Commonwealth to adopt Common Core’s K-12 college- and career-ready standards for Bay State public schools. DESE oversees all of the Commonwealth’s public K-12 schools.
“We were told it (the grant from the Gates Foundation) would never show up as a line item on the budget so anyone could ask questions,” said Sandra Stotsky, a Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) member at the time. “Gates chose the writers and made sure the right application (for the Race to the Top grant) went to the U. S. Department of Education. He wasn’t taking any chances with his $250,000.”
The quarter-million dollars was a small portion of the $160 million the Gates Foundation has awarded Massachusetts organizations, universities, and school districts since 2002 to fund projects involving education and Common Core.
“I believe The Bridgespan Group offered to help DESE,” said Jacqueline Reis, DESE spokesperson. “The role Bridgespan played on the Race to the Top application was project management and logistical work, and they did not shape the content of our application plans.”
The date of Kramer’s letter shows that DESE, with a statewide K-12 student population of more than 955,000, was working on its application for the Race to the Top grant at least 10 months before its governing board, the BOE, voted to accept Common Core State Standards in 2010. Proponents say such standards are designed to reduce the number of Bay State public high school graduates requiring remedial math and English classes when they enter college or a post-secondary school.
Kramer didn’t respond to baystateparent’s queries about The Bridgespan Group’s actions, nor were calls to the Gates Foundation returned.
The Hidden Tug
This isn’t the first time a philanthropic foundation has used its financial muscle to bring about change. During the first half of the 20th century, the business titans of that era – Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller – also started foundations that impacted the nation, scholars say.
Joan Roelofs, a retired professor at New Hampshire’s Keane State University, and the author of the book Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, says large, private philanthropies, like Gates’s, with their significant amounts of money, are able to promote policies they prefer.
“All citizens should want to know who is pulling the strings,” she said. “After all, government policy is supposed to be made by our representatives, in accordance with our preferences.”
While there’s nothing illegal about the actions The Bridgespan Group took to help DESE win a Race to the Top grant, foundation experts said the funding from the Gates Foundation to Bridgespan to assist DESE shows the power of a private philanthropic organization with deep coffers.
“The problem is the influence and the coziness of the arrangement between the government and a private foundation and the hundreds of millions of dollars put into this preferred outcome,” said Jane Robbins, an attorney with The American Principles Project, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s the kind of influence peddling that’s not appropriate.”
“All of their (Gates Foundation) funding is going to further their goals — some of it through direct programs, some through research, and some through advocacy,” said University of Chicago Professor Jennifer Mosley. “They can’t tell the organizations (they fund) what to say, but they can advance the voices of allies (with their money).”
The larger question for the Gates Foundation is to whom does it report, especially when it’s seeking a particular outcome, such as the apparent implementation of Common Core?
“No one,” Mosley said. “What they fund and what they pursue is completely up to them.”
“Internal Revenue Service rules strictly forbid foundations from lobbying, and if they go too far into politics, the foundation risks losing its tax-exempt status,” said Brenda Bushouse, University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor and author of Universal Preschool: Policy Change, Stability, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. “I have qualms about the impacts of foundations on the democratic process, which is one of the reasons why I wrote my book.”
The only obligations U.S.-based philanthropic foundations have is to abide by Internal Revenue Service tax regulations by giving away 5% of their financial assets annually, which is more than $2 billion for the Gates Foundation, and to make sure they’re funding only non-profits and causes that fit their charter, noted Andrew Morton, a Chicago attorney who works with many celebrity philanthropies.
According to the Gates Foundation Website, the organization focuses on tackling: “critical problems in four program areas”:
“Our Global Development Division works to help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty. Our Global Health Division aims to harness advances in science and technology to save lives in developing countries. Our United States Division works to improve U.S. high school and postsecondary education and support vulnerable children and families in Washington State. And our Global Policy & Advocacy Division seeks to build strategic relationships and promote policies that will help advance our work. Our approach to grantmaking in all four areas emphasizes collaboration, innovation, risk-taking, and, most importantly, results.”
Gates Money in Massachusetts
The Washington Post two years ago estimated that the Gates Foundation gave about $150 million to organizations across the country on behalf of Common Core, while Mother Jones last year pegged Gates Foundation giving at more than $200 million to organizations working on the new standards.
From a review of the funding dispersed, publicly available on theGates Foundation Website, baystateparent estimates that, over the past 13 years, the foundation made grants of more that $160 million to Bay State companies and nonprofits working in education, including several universities and two public school systems. Nearly $36 million of that amount, baystateparent estimates, was given to Massachusetts companies and nonprofits either working on projects related to Common Core or those entities advocating for the new college- and career-ready standards.
Well-known local institutions receiving Gates Foundation grants include Harvard University ($38 million), which Gates left before completing his bachelor’s degree; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($3.3 million); Clark University ($1.9 million); Worcester Polytechnic Institute ($265,760); Boston Public Schools ($2.5 million); Worcester Public Schools ($312,266); and Boston public television station WGBH’s Educational Foundation ($999,999) to support “education-related programming on (the show) Frontline,” the Website shows.
Gates Foundation money also went to the state’s Secretary of Education office during Paul Reville’s tenure. It received a $650,000 grant from Gates in 2010, shortly after the BOE approved Common Core, “to support Innovation Schools in two types of districts … those that include higher- and lower-performing schools,” the Gates Website says.
baystateparent inquiries regarding the grant were made to Reville’s office and unreturned. He currently teaches at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
James Peyser, Massachusetts’s current Secretary of Education, was working as managing director for the nonprofit, venture philanthropy New School Ventures Fund – which raised and directed $150 million to charter schools – when it received more than $80 million from the Gates Foundation between 2003 and 2014, the Foundation’s Website shows.
baystateparent contacted Gov. Charlie Baker’s office about this and received the following response: “Secretary Peyser, a key figure in developing MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) over a decade ago, is working with (BOE) Chairman Paul Sagan to objectively and fairly gather the information needed to make an open and public debate around this important issue,” said Laura Rigas, Peyser’s spokesperson. “Chairman Sagan and the (BOE) held five public hearings and Secretary Peyser is convening an independent group of researchers to analyze and synthesize the relevant studies, in addition to initiating a new research project to determine whether PARCC (Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers) or MCAS is a better indicator of future college success.”
Rigas also noted that “Gov. Baker was the only person to testify before the BOE against joining Common Core when Massachusetts was considering the move several years ago.”
DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester joined the board of directors of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington, in January; since 2002, it has received more than $90 million in grants from the Gates Foundation, the Gates Website shows.
The Council’s mission is similar to that of PARCC consortium, which Chester leads, supporting “major reforms in classrooms and schools — like college- and career-ready standards, aligned assessments, and systems for improving educator effectiveness,” according to its Website.
BOE Chairman Sagan recently said that the Board determined there was no conflict of interest between Commissioner Chester’s Commonwealth job and his duties outside of the Bay State.
Worcester Public Schools used its Gates Foundation grant money to train coaches for the Literacy Design Collaborative, a Common Core-related program, said WPS Chief Financial Officer Brian Allen.
When asked how Boston Public Schools spent its $2.5 million in Gates grant money, spokesman Richard Weir noted: “We have not been able to pinpoint grants totaling anything close to that amount.” baystateparent sent links from the Gates Foundation’s Website to Weir via email, listing the grants made to Boston Public Schools, but received no response.
Education Next, a journal produced at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, applied for and received three Gates Foundation grants totaling over $1 million, the foundation’s Website shows.
Paul Peterson, the journal’s editor and a Harvard professor, said the foundation never pressured the journal to adopt its views on Common Core.
WGBH spokesperson Jeanne Hopkins said Frontline, which develops in-depth journalism shows, used the Gates Foundation grant to produce four episodes about education, but none were about Common Core.
“The Gates Foundation placed no pressure on Frontline to explore this topic in any of its productions,” she said.
Other Gates Giving in Massachusetts
The Bridgespan Group received four Gates Foundation grants, totaling more than $17 million, the Gates Website shows.
The Massachusetts education nonprofit receiving the most money from the Gates Foundation over the past 13 years was Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based organization working with school systems and community colleges to ensure low-income high school students in the Bay State — and in more than 40 other states — are aware of classes and other opportunities that prepare them for either a career or additional college courses, says spokesperson Sophie Besl.
Jobs for the Future received more than $52 million from the Gates Foundation. It also received financial support from many other sources, including Chicago Public Schools and DESE, the organization’s Website shows.
Boston-based Teach Plus, which received more than $17 million from the Gates Foundation, develops teachers working in urban public schools, training them on communicating with policy makers, including BOE members, leadership skills, and ways to brainstorm best practices with their fellow teachers to improve classroom results, says Lindsay Sobel, the organization’s executive director for Massachusetts. The organization also sent representatives to testify on behalf of Common Core and the proposed PARCC test at the BOE forums held around the Commonwealth between April and July 2015.
Linda Noonan, executive director of Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which received more than $400,000 from two Gates Foundation grants, also testified in favor of Common Core and the PARCC test at the BOE forum in Springfield.
(For a list of Massachusetts organizations receiving Gates Foundation funding, download our spreadsheet.)
Gates on Common Core
The only recent insight Bill Gates has offered on Common Core came via a video interview he granted last year to The Washington Post: “We don’t fund people to say, ‘OK, we’ll pay you this if you say you like Common Core. We’ve never done anything like that. We do evaluations.”
Gates also talked about his support for the standards: “I believe in the Common Core because of its substance and what it will do to improve education and that’s the only reason I believe in the Common Core. This is philanthropy trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had.”
About six years ago, Michael Petrilli, then a vice president and now president with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education think tank, told the Puget Sound Business Journal, “It’s not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education.’”
“I wouldn’t say he’s bought the system but he’s bought the capacity to put pressure on the system,” noted Anthony Cody, a former Oakland, Calif., middle school math and science teacher and author of a book about the Gates Foundation, The Educator And The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation. “Systematically, what they have done is paid for advocacy groups, paid for lobbying, paid for influence, and cultivated very important relationships within the Obama Administration that have converged to put pressure on the public school system.”
As Cody sees it, there’s a direct link between Bill Gates and U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as a deputy secretary at the federal DOE, James Shelton, came from the Gates Foundation, as did Duncan’s former chief of staff, Margot Rogers.
Over the past five years, the Gates Foundation Website shows it made grants totaling more than $800,000 to the DOE as well as to several states’ departments of education, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Washington, Oregon, and many others.
“When the foundations have as much money as they do, and they have the tight ties that they do with the political class, it’s very difficult to stop them,” said Robbins of The American Principles Project. “When the government, which is public, says, ‘We’ll get them (the foundations) to do this because they’re the experts,’ what this does is remove any sort of accountability. Voters have no idea these foundations are making public policy decisions.”
Yet UMass Professor Bushouse warns we don’t have “enough data to draw any conclusions” about foundations.
“There are a lot of people doing very good work, but the foundation world tends to be quite insular,” she said.