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Bill Gates And The Common Core: Did He Really Do Anything Wrong?

June 18, 2014

By Howard Husock

In a recent front page article, the Washington Post tells what it casts as the story of how Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, used his fortune to promote adoption of the now-controversial Common Core education standards, the national goals backed by the Obama Administration but vilified in some quarters on both right and left. The implication of “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Common Core Revolution”, however, goes well beyond the specific issue at hand. In what amounts to unusual criticism of his influence and impact, the Post strongly implies that Gates can and did buy the policy result he wanted—with democracy potentially at risk. The Post, in other words, has raised a question not just about how the Common Core came to be widely adopted—but about the legitimacy of big foundation grants and other forms of philanthropic giving.

It's a tempting narrative—but one that almost certainly overstates the capacity of any individual donor to advance his own ideas, without the stage having previously been set by others. And it undervalues the importance of a distinctive virtue of American society: having institutions outside government that have the ways and means to advance serious ideas.

In the Post article, by reporter Lyndsey Layton, the story of the Gates success in promoting Common Core to the point that 45 states have now adopted it, is recounted almost as a sort of plot. Once Gates decided to push the idea, writes Layton, “what followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer,. . .” All it took, says the Post, was cash. “The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum . . .” from business to labor and, as a result, groups “who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.”

This is an implicit calumny which has come up before when the topic is education reform. Reformer turned reform-critic Diane Ravitch, for instance, used the term “billionaire boys club” to describe a group of hedge fund heavyweights who have supported the charter school movement. Both she and the Post can be said to be channeling (consciously or unconsciously) an influential academic paper about super-rich philanthropists. In his 2003 paper, “Hyperagency and High-Tech Donors: A New Theory of the New Philanthropists”, Paul Schervish of the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College, asserts that the new super-rich comprise a class of “hyperagents” who possess “an array of dispositions and capacities that enable individuals relatively single-handedly (to) produce the social outcomes they desire”. This would be a rather frightening aspect of American society if it were true—but there's good reason to think that it's not. Indeed, Schervish himself provides virtually no examples of this actually occurring, except for an isolated local case of a philanthropist who had the means to purchase land to be set aside for conservation.

The idea that money alone can buy impact is no more true in public policy than it is in elections. The Gates success actually demonstrates that philanthropic money can play a role in influencing process—when momentum for change has already long been building. Simply put, Bill Gates did not invent or seize upon an obscure idea and foist it on an unsuspecting public. The idea that school curriculum—not just spending or choice—matters had a well-established intellectual pedigree. As my City Journal colleague Sol Stern has written, the education critic/reformer E.D. Hirsch, in a series of increasingly influential books, had “during the past quarter-century, warned over and over that something is dangerously amiss in the nation's classrooms. His diagnosis could be summed up with the admonition ‘it's the curriculum, stupid'.” To this deep intellectual foundation—shared by a number of other influential thinkers and popularizers, including Stern himself and the Thomas Fordham Institute's Chester Finn—one must add the fact that, prior to Gates' involvement in the issue, no less a laboratory than the New York City public schools, during the period when Joel Klein served as Chancellor, had undertaken a pilot implementation of raised curriculum standards—and found that they helped raised student achievement.

One could go on at length about the building intellectual, professional and political interest in such standards prior to the involvement of the Gates Foundation. The point here is that the Gates money could make a difference because of all that had preceded it—and that, contrary to Schervish, absent such a foundation for the Foundation, it is unlikely that philanthropic money alone could have carried the day. Such money is part of a food chain, as it were, that leads to change—not a super-weapon that can force it. One finds the evidence for this in counter-examples. Major liberal foundations, from Ford to Carnegie, have long promoted policies more welcoming to immigrants—but had precious little to show for their efforts. Similarly, ostensible hyperagents such as hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer may be able to help hold up approval of the Keystone pipeline—but he's hardly been able to “single-handedly” turn back the tsunami of new fossil fuel (natural gas) production. Similarly, George Soros might well be credited with playing a key role in advancing marijuana legalization (through philanthropy which supported state referenda on the legalization of medical marijuana) but the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, founded in 1970, had helped lay the groundwork long before—as had the personal choices of countless baby boomers. Hyperagents, in other words, can be powerfully effective not when they endorse an idiosyncratic, personal cause—but when they promote an already-emerging public consensus.

The same sort of overstatement of any one “agent's” influence is often made about mass media. The attention paid to some documentary films, for instance—from Edward R. Murrow's “Harvest of Shame” to the Vietnam era “Selling of the Pentagon”—can lead to the false conclusion that films are uniquely potent in changing public attitudes and policy. There is, in fact, such a profusion of films and new media today, that it's more likely that even big-budget efforts will leave little mark. When they do, it is likely that, as per Gates, they have built on a long-evolving consensus. It's a point I made in my 1989 paper for the Woodrow Wilson Center, “From Moynihan to Moyers: The Black Family and the Political Agenda”, which focused on the apparently outsized impact of a Bill Moyers film set in Newark, which documented family breakdown there—and likely went on to play a role in influencing the later adoption of federal welfare reform. Moyers, in effect, stood on the shoulders of thought leaders from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Charles Murray who, as with the example of E.D. Hirsch, had laid the groundwork for change.

The effects of foundations and philanthropy in the U.S. can, without doubt, be cause for great concern, as my colleague Heather MacDonald has pointed out powerfully in her book, The Burden of Bad Ideas. Charles Hamilton, former executive director of both the JM Kaplan and Clark Foundations, and who has written extensively on family foundations, puts it well: “While money is important, I don't think it alone, determines everything—and I can't figure out the alternative”. Indeed, would we really want to live in a society in which ideas advanced through government alone? At their best, philanthropy validates and amplifies serious ideas that might otherwise never get a hearing. That's what Bill Gates did—and, as the emerging backlash against the Common Core underscores —it's not even clear how long-lived his victory will be. His fortune, whatever its impact, certainly did not repeal democracy.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2014/06/18/bill-gates-and-the-common-core-did-he-really-do-anything-wrong/

 

 
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