A well-funded nonprofit, run by a controversial tech billionaire, has a long history of experimenting and failing in its attempts to improve public education. The nonprofit’s record, and concerning connections, raise red flags about its involvement in Texas education.
This billionaire, Bill Gates, once had a bitter rivalry with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in the tech industry. Their disagreement spread to education, with Gates focusing on funding and adjusting systems. An economist by the name of Milton Friedman made waves in the 1970s and 1980s when he warned against faith in government systems and the idea that public servants are saviors. He relentlessly argued that intentions did not matter. As he put it, “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
Such warnings continue to be well founded. Public servants in education have given influence to radical-left nonprofits connected to the Chinese Communist Party. These nonprofits have also been given access to Texas’ education system.
On the opposite end of Gates in this battle was Jobs, who in 1995 advocated for empowering parents through a “full voucher” program.
The battle between systems and parents continues to this day. Parent-empowering school choice reform has swept America in 2023, with education advocate Corey DeAngelis stating it’s time to start funding students, not systems. The Texas Legislature is considering a limited school choice program in the 2023 legislative session.
Previously, Texas Scorecard covered the concerning ideologies promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), one of the wealthiest philanthropic organizations in the world. It also has suspect connections with the Chinese Communist Party and radical statists. With substantial funds and a wide reach, BMGF has incredible power to do good—or ill. They already have a concerning record.
Medical specialists called attention to BMGF’s involvement in healthcare. It was widely reported in 2008 that Dr. Aarata Kochi, malaria research chief at the World Health Organization, alleged BMGF was “accountable to no one,” and a “cartel” that was pushing for uniformity in scientific opinion, not open discussion and debate.
The New York Times reported a memo by Kochi to then WHO director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, cautioning that while the BMGF’s rivers of cash were important, it could have “far-reaching, largely unintended consequences.” One such consequence was the groupthink Kochi warned about. He said at the time that a number of the globe’s top malaria scientists were “locked up in a ‘cartel’ with their own research funding being linked to those of others within the group.” This is a problem, Kochi said, due to the fact that “each has a vested interest to safeguard the work of the others,” so getting third-party, nonpartisan reviews of research proposals “is becoming increasingly difficult.” A health policy specialist at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Amir Attaran, agreed with Kochi. Based on his experience with BMGF-backed policy groups, he claimed they’re forced into “stomach-churning group think.” But he believed scientists feared BMGF’s “autocratic” head of malaria, Dr. Regina Rabinovich, rather than BMGF itself.
University College London researcher Dr. David McCoy, also a public health doctor, gave his own widely reported caution about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “[It] is more than a collection of grants and projects,” he said. “Through its funding it also operates through an interconnected network of organizations and individuals across academia and the NGO and business sectors. This allows it to leverage influence through a kind of ‘group-think’ in international health.”
Psychology Today defines groupthink as “a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.” In other words, it can be a shield against accountability, eliminating criticism of proposals, projects, or people. Such shields are often deployed by insecure business executives or public servants in government. In both situations, this can lead to disastrous consequences. In his book, The Advantage, business consultant Patrick Lencioni writes, “What’s not okay is for team members to avoid disagreement, hold back their opinions on important matters, and choose their battles carefully based on the likely cost of disagreement. That is a recipe for both bad decision making and interpersonal resentment.”
Steve Jobs was widely reported to have encouraged, and picked, rather hostile debates over Apple products.
Concerns about BMGF’s approach and influence extend beyond medical research. One of their most significant forays in the past twenty years has been into the field of education. Texas Scorecard has examined many of the initiatives BMGF has pursued. As with many of these efforts, although their intentions may have been innocent or even commendable, the results were not nearly as successful as BMGF had hoped.
For this article, Texas Scorecard reviewed multiple open source documents. This includes ECONorthwest’s Quantitative Analysis of the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, published in November 2010. We also examined Contrasting Paths to Small-School Reform, a five year evaluation of BMGF’s National High Schools Initiative, published in 2008 by the Teachers College at Columbia University. We also looked at Pioneer Institute Public Policy Research’s April 2020 white paper The Common Core Debacle.
Texas Scorecard also pulled information from a CSV file of all grants BMGF has committed to. That file is available at their website. We extrapolated information relating to our investigation from this file into an easy to search spreadsheet.
What follows in this investigative report are highlights from these sources. Citizens wishing to conduct a thorough deep dive are encouraged to click the links above.
Once BMGF came on the philanthropy scene in 2000, they appear to have immediately focused their gaze on education. Specifically, they were convinced that the way to improve education in America was through smaller schools. They began funding initiatives to split large schools into smaller entities. In 2003, they contributed $15 million to the Oregon Smaller Schools Initiative (OSSI) alongside a partner organization, Meyer Memorial Trust. The two organizations contributed a combined $28 million to the project.
In 2010, ECONorthwest’s Analysis looked back on the progress made over the course of five years. In the report’s own words: “As funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust ends, it is worth stepping back and asking what $28 million in Initiative money purchased.”
Buried in the 72-page document is a tacit admission that the results did not bear out BMGF’s hopes: “Despite the existence of numerous OSSI like initiatives across the country, there is relatively little rigorous empirical evidence quantifying the beneficial impacts of recent small schools initiatives.”
They found that the oldest pool of students in the program demonstrated improvement in all categories measured, except for attendance, but success across categories diminished with subsequent classes. Effectively, the report found that, with the exception of attendance in the oldest pool, and post-secondary enrollment with one of the two newer pools, “OSSI students perform at or above average for otherwise similar non[-]OSSI students in every outcome.” However, it specifically “avoid[ed] drawing strong conclusions about overall Initiative outcomes” due to the short lifespan of the project. The report’s “findings indicate that when well implemented, the OSSI model can measurably improve student outcomes.”
At best, these new schools “show[ed] promise.” But when you ask for the time, money, and trust of entire school districts, students, and parents, promise isn’t enough.
BMGF made a huge investment into the small school initiatives. It was widely reported in 2006 that they gave roughly $1.4 billion in grants to nearly 2,000 similar schools across the country to further the implementation of similar programs. $140 million in funding was disbursed in Washington state alone.
Not all schools responded positively to these initiatives. Disagreements erupted between parents, administrators, and teachers on how to implement these changes. Attempts to compromise between large and small school models often resulted in “the worst of both worlds,” according to Rick Lear, a director of the project. He was quoted in a 2006 piece by the Seattle Times exploring this subject. Most notably, the faculty at two schools in Washington—Foss and Davis—eventually voted not to get any more funding from BMGF.
This wasn’t an isolated instance of parents, students, and teachers begging for the Gates Foundation to leave them alone. At the height of the COVID situation in 2020, it was widely reported that groups like the New York State Allies for Public Education, Class Size Matters, and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy wrote to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), opposing his administration’s efforts to work with the Gates Foundation on “reimagining” education. Specifically, they cited BMGF’s “damaging education agenda” as the reason for their opposition.
The efficacy of the Gates Foundation’s smaller school model push has been studied in a five-year analysis. Published in 2008 by the Teachers College Record at Columbia University, the results noted some improvement in certain categories, but the initiative did not demonstrate an overall healthier school climate, increased student engagement, a stronger attendance record, or higher student achievement. Areas like quality of work once again displayed “indications of promise.” “The quality of students’ ELA work went up, but their mathematics work became weaker,” the report stated. ELA stands for English Language Acquisition.
Despite BMGF’s firm convictions that smaller schools were the key to educational progress in America, the Teachers College Record published analysis stated:
Although this strategy can reorganize large numbers of teachers and students into smaller learning communities in a relatively short amount of time, reorganization per se does not appear to have all the accompanying benefits, in terms of rigor and relationships, that the foundation had hoped for.
They admitted that “as a whole, these schools have not produced the hoped-for significant improvements in achievement results for students to date.” At best, they showed “indications of promise”—a cold comfort to parents with students enrolled in the schools used as guinea pigs for these pet projects.
Bill Gates himself acknowledged the failure of these programs, but engaged in finger pointing rather than self-criticism. In a 2009 letter, he wrote:
Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.
Such results are expected when one considers, again, Steve Jobs analysis of who the customers of education are: the parents. In 1995, he advocated for empowering parents, for them to be more involved, as a means to fix education.
In 2010, it was widely reported that the Gates Foundation finally abandoned the smaller schools initiative. However, these shortcomings did not mark the end of BMGF’s foray into the field of education. That experiment was just beginning, and Gates did not follow his rival’s advice.
Rack up the Bill, Taxpayers Pay
Another attempt at funding and fixing the system was BMGF’s disbursement of multimillion-dollar grants towards the improvement of teacher performance. One of these programs cropped up in Hillsborough County, Florida. The Tampa Bay Times reported that BMGF was expected to contribute $100 million towards a program that sought to implement merit-based pay and counsel or fire a certain percentage of underperforming teachers, among other things. In reality, BMGF only provided $80 million, with the school district spending far more than the required $100 million.
BMGF poured significant amounts of money into Florida, having given more than $52 million in grants to Florida universities since 1999, and more than $11 million to the Florida Department of Education.
What were the results of once again focusing on the system rather than empowering parents? Again, they were not as star-studded as the Gates Foundation had envisioned. It was widely reported that “lower-income schools continue to hire the newest and least qualified teachers. Test scores are still measurably lower for poor and minority students. And Hillsborough’s graduation rate now lags behind other large counties in Florida.” Eventually, the district phased out the program due to the high, unsustainable nature of the costs. The funds invested by the Gates Foundation—and the funds contributed by the district’s taxpayers—vanished down the sinkhole.
The Hillsborough County incident in Florida was not an isolated case. It was a pilot program, an example of BMGF’s ineffective venture into improving teacher effectiveness. After the Gates Foundation dumped more than $200 million in Hillsborough, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, a study was conducted. The results were widely reported in 2018, based on a more than 520 page report from the Rand Corporation. “The initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students… student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the … initiative,” the report stated. Although there was evidence that some ineffective teachers were not being retained in the schools surveyed, the study “did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers” and “found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall.”
When it comes to providing students with the best teachers, BMGF’s efforts have not been particularly successful. This, combined with the fact that BMGF has given $11 million in grants to teachers’ unions, like the anti-school choice American Federation of Teachers, should give parents pause about their schools accepting BMGF funds.
According to the Seattle Times, in July 2010, Gates admitted that when it comes to education he’s not a specialist, but added: “I’m a very good student. I’m learning a lot.” One might argue that good students learn from past mistakes. When it comes to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they tend to make the same mistakes time and again. The problem is, wealthy philanthropies can afford to make risky gambles that fail, and if only they are affected that’s one thing. But it is young children in American public schools, and their parents, who pay the price for blunders and mistakes made in education. This is an example of what renowned economist Thomas Sowell calls “third-party decision making by people who pay no cost for being wrong.”
In this case, BGMF continued full steam ahead on another educational experiment.
BMGF more than $328 million in grants to promote the implementation of Common Core standards. A hot topic in education circles for the past decade or more, Common Core has arguably been a leading factor in the deterioration of student achievement in the American education system. Theodor Rebarber, a former Department of Education policy specialist, published an April 2020 white paper addressing the failures of the Common Core system. He notes how many advancements in student achievement prior to the advent of Common Core standards were stunted and eventually reversed once the standards were implemented: “The slow but relatively steady gains in student achievement that we had grown used to in recent decades have not only stopped since the implementation of Common Core, but we are now seeing the first sustained declines in student achievement since as far back as we have national test score trend data.”
Rebarber calls out the Gates Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and Achieve, Inc. by name in his report, highlighting their executives lack of knowledge and experience. They “followed the direction of the same establishment education experts who have been repackaging the same antiquated progressive curriculum ‘reforms’ for many decades,” Rebarber wrote. “These business leaders and the federal government persuaded most states to establish a cartel that damaged student achievement for the country as a whole.”
BMGF’s actions in Florida reveal more of their concerning political connections. They gave $9.1 million has gone to an organization called Impact Florida. Ostensibly a nonpartisan organization, Impact Florida’s values—including “equity,” a term commonly used in leftist propaganda—and their connections belie their attempt at portraying a neutral stance.
Transparency USA reported that Impact Florida, since 2017, has received more than $40,000 in contributions from the Hillsborough County Democratic Party and the Florida Alliance for Better Government (FABG) combined. The FABG chairperson is Screven Watson, the former executive director of the Florida Democrat Party.
A few of Impact Florida’s contributions have come from the other side of the aisle as well, such as a $7,400 donation from the Committee to Protect Florida, chaired by Republican Mark Zubaly. On the other hand, Impact Florida has also received $6,600 from the Flippable – Florida Victory Fund. Flippable is a political action committee whose mission is widely reported to be flipping states legislatures from Republican to Democrat-controlled. In the spring of 2019, they joined with Swing Left, an organization whose stated mission is to elect Democrats to public office.
When faced with reality, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tacitly admitted its failures. Former BMGF CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann wrote an open letter in 2016, lamenting their lackluster results: “This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”
And yet, despite these failures, BMGF continues to focus on systems rather than empowering education’s customer: parents.
Their results have been disappointing at best, and catastrophic at worst. At the end of the day, American schoolchildren and their parents paid the price for BMGF’s experimentation In the words of Thomas Sowell, “it is so easy to be wrong—and to persist in being wrong—when the costs of being wrong are paid by others.”
The present-day activities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation demonstrate that it will take more than a lack of answers and a losing record to stop them from pursuing their educational experiments on any institutional guinea pigs willing to accept their funds.
For Texans, the concern lies with allowing this failing, far-left nonprofit to influence Texas’ already troubled public education system.
In Part 3, Texas Scorecard will examine BMGF’s activities in Texas education.