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They do not teach or hold elected office but Bill and Melinda Gates wield enormous influence in New York City schools and in classrooms throughout the country.

(This story was updated on Oct. 14, 2011, to reflect additional information and statements provided to Gotham Gazette by the Department of Education.)

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At the start of NBC's Education Nation extravaganza last month host Brian Williams introduced and praised one of the funders of the event, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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For the reformers, teachers, parents and politicians at Education Nation, the refrain was a familiar one. The Gates Foundation, Williams continued, is "the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It's their facts that we're going to be referring to often to help along our conversation."

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Indeed, with hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into our nation’s schools each year -- and plans for an addition $3.5 billion over the next five to six years -- Gates has funded an extraordinary amount. Other foundations, like the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have also gotten in on the education game, but according to reformers and teachers, the Gates Foundation, with vastly more money than any of the other foundations, leads the way.

This is certainly the case in New York City where Gates money has fueled – and at times even directed – the education reforms of the Bloomberg administration. Over the last decade, Gates has given $175 million to $200 million to the city's public and charter schools, according to the foundation.

Paying for Policies

With their donations, the Gates have taken an unprecedented role in directing reform -- setting the agenda for education policy they help underwrite, supporting the organizations that advocate for those policies and, as Williams noted, providing the facts to back it up.

"The facts are coming from someone who has a very big agenda," said Anthony Cody, a teacher and education reformer from Oakland, Calif., whose criticisms of Education Nation were published in the Washington Post. Cody worked as a middle school teacher for 18 years before working on district wide reforms for another six.

In the past , Cody said, school administrators and teachers would instigate programs and reforms and then apply for funds from philanthropies or government on a project-by-project basis. Now, the impetus for reforms often comes from foundations, and school systems, eager for funds, adapt their programs to fit the philanthropies' agendas.

Chris Williams, the press secretary at the Gates Foundation, noted that philanthropies overall are evolving, not just Gates. "The intention is to be catalytic, to help spur change where other investments haven't been able to -- to take that kind of risk," he said.

The Small Schools 'Success'

The most well-known example of foundation-fueled education reform is the small schools initiative.

In 2000, the Gates Foundation announced it would jump into education reform with a plan to create small schools. Over the next eight years, they paid districts to break up large public schools and create 2,602 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia. In 2003, the foundation awarded New York City $51.2 million to create 62 small high schools, as part of the city's plan to shut large high schools it deemed failing and replace them with small, often themed schools.

In 2008, after investing $2 billion in the reform, the Gates announced that the program had not shown strong results, and the foundation would restructure its goals.

In some districts, such as Cody's this could lead to another change in course. Responding to budget cuts and poor reviews of the new schools, Oakland has been closing small schools and reforming large, more comprehensive schools in the last few years.

In New York, the small schools initiative has been credited with raising graduation rates, but a New School study in 2009, found that while graduation rates were up at newly created small schools, the numbers were somewhat deceptive. As small schools, which were able to select their students, reported relatively high graduation rates, some of the remaining large high schools saw surges in enrollment that created discipline and other problems. This in turn, led to a fall in the numbers of students receiving a diploma at these schools. Some of these high schools were then shut, creating even more problems for the big schools that remained open.

"While the [Department of Education] has trumpeted the success of the new small schools for at-risk students, the net gain for all high school students is much smaller because the majority of high schoolers still attend large schools," the study found.

The Department of Education itself, however, says the successes are just that and can’t be ignored: Over the last four years, graduation is up 20 points, according to department spokesman Matthew Mittenthal. "It's not just a number, but tens of thousands more students graduating and attending college" he said.

Mittenthal countered the New School study with another report, conducted by independent research firm MDRC -- which has received millions in funding from the Gates Foundation including money for this particular study -- that found that "by the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of [small schools of choice] enrollees are on track to graduate in four years compared with 48.5 percent of their non-[small school} counterparts, for a difference of 10.0 percentage points. These positive effects are sustained over the next two years."

The study also found that by the fourth year of high school, the small schools "increase overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points, which is roughly one third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City."

The critics, however, remain skeptical.

"Across the country, a lot of [small] schools are being closed -- they're incredibly expensive and inefficient -- but we're still creating more,” Leonie Haimson said.

Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City advocacy group that promotes smaller class sizes. Having fewer students in a classroom, Haimson said is "one of the few education reform ideas that has been proven to work," but is not a part of the foundation's reform agenda.

It also has not been a priority for the Bloomberg administration. Class sizes in the city this year are the largest in a decade, a teachers union study found.

"There's never been a time in history when one foundation controls the narrative so much," Haimson said and criticizing the Gates for acting on policies that she says are based on "completely unreliable facts" that they have supplied themselves.

Williams explained that the Gates -- like most foundations -- has a "strong theory of action, of change. We make investments that align with it." But he denies there is no expertise to back up its philosophy. "Our education team is filled with former educators. these are people who have been in schools, who know how schools operate," Williams said.

And he said the foundation does adapt to evidence. "One of the things we learned from that experience is that school structure isn’t enough, the schools need really good teachers in the classrooms," Williams said. "It's an evolutionary process, [the small schools initiative] guided us."

Reworking the Agenda

As a result, the Gates' amended agenda focuses on accountability -- teacher accountability for their students' achievements, as measured by test scores. Numerous critics have lambasted the Gates for tying students test scores to teacher’s jobs, in the name of accountability. Tests of a third grader’s reading level is just that — a test of whether the third grader can read, not whether or not the teacher can teach, said Diane Ravitch, an NYU professor of education and frequent critic of Bloomberg education policies.

Last month, the city dropped its effort to rank teachers on the basis of test scores, saying it would leave devising a teacher evaluation system to the state.

The Gates agenda also stresses student choice, which allows children and their families to select their schools, with charter schools a major part of the mix.

Under Bloomberg, charters have proliferated in the city with the active encouragement of the Department of Education, which has gone so far as to give the publicly funded, privately run schools place in Department of Education buildings. About 45,500 students attend 136 charters in the city.

In New York City, though, choice goes beyond that. Students entering elementary school who do well on a standardized test can choose from a variety of schools, and the city to a great extent has eliminated neighborhood high schools, compelling eighth graders and their parents to choose school s and apply to them.

"More frequently, it’s the schools that pick the kids and they’ll avoid the kids with the lowest scores because they just can’t risk it. Some schools become dumpling grounds and then they are closed. You'd think after nine years of Bloomberg reforms, we wouldn’t be closing any schools, but we are," said Ravitch. "At what point do they begin to talk about adding some instructional plan? They don’t," Ravitch said.

At a forum at the New School earlier this year, many people criticized the school choice system for high school but said despite its many failings it represented an improvement over the days when students had to go to their neighborhood school -- and students in poor neighborhoods usually went to poor schools.

Of course many of the change in New York City have come about as a result of mayoral control -- and Gates has also been an enthusiastic supporter that. In 2009, as Bloomberg sought to get the legislature to renew mayoral control of schools, a group called Learn -NY popped up to lobby for the extension. While billed as a grassroots group, Learn-NY got $4.1 million from Gates – the man, not the foundation -- and millions more from another billionaire, Eli Broad.

The donations did not become public knowledge until after the legislature had granted Bloomberg's wish.

Federal Backing

The Gates reform agenda has gained support not only in New York City, but on a national scale, too. The Obama's administration's funding competition for schools -- Race to the Top -- is notably in sync with the foundation's reform agenda of accountability and choice.

Last year, New York state won $700 million in funds from the Race to the Top program. For its piece of the pie, New York agreed to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, as well as promising to make curriculum changes and develop a more reliable statewide testing system.

States that were interested in the funds had to submit lengthy applications detailing their educational policy. To help states tackle the 350-page application — a significant task for resource-strapped governments — the Gates Foundation gave 15 states "that have demonstrated commitment to the components of the foundation’s College Ready strategy” $250,000 grants to pay for consultants to write their applications." Other states interested in that sort of grant money had to agree to eight additional policy stipulations before applying.

"The situation that we have is that the entire public sector is being systematically starved of resources that are needed," Cody said. "In those situations, you make those institutions vulnerable to agencies that offer money." Over the last three years, the budget for the New York State Department of Education has been cut by 30 percent, according the then state's education commissioner, David Steiner, in December.

City school gave seen their budgets cuts as well, leading to fewer teachers, larger class sizes and the layoffs of some 670 aides and other school employees last week.

Resource Starved

With billions spent on public education every year, a few hundred million expended nationally may seem small, but Ravitch said the relatively small amount of funds can drive reform because they are discretionary.

"Most money goes in the school is committed," she said. "There’s very little discretionary money."

So while the considerable public funds will keep the heat on, pay for pensions and employee health care, and buy textbooks, the money that for anything new comes almost entirely from philanthropy.

Williams agreed. "We can commit dollars where others can't," he said.

In December, New York announced that it would request another $18 million over the next four years from foundations to fund a fellowship of experts who would decide how exactly the state would use its $700 million Race to the Top. Of that, $3.5 million has already been raised, including $900,000 from the Gates Foundation.

Despite all of Gates' money, Williams sees a robust debate amongst education reformers, in New York and elsewhere. When philanthropies fund significant research, there is always reason to worry about the integrity of the findings, he said. But, he added, Gates works hard promote independent research.

Ravitch has her doubts. Because the Gates funds organization that advocate for Gates' policies, there is little discourse or review from the education community, she said, commenting, "They exist in an echo chamber." "They've been saying that this will be the solution to our problems for 20 years. We're failing and yet we're doing the same thing," Ravitch said before paraphrasing Albert Einstein: "I think that's the definition of insanity -- when you do the same thing and expect different results."


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