Billionaires go back to school

Philanthropists are funneling big money into public education. Are they too powerful? Here, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Penny Pritzker, member of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and Melinda Gates, co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- all key leaders in education.

Jennifer Green (left) and Christina Hall, co-founders of Urban Teacher Center in Baltimore. The startup has received about $1.4 million from the Gates Foundation, through the New Schools Venture Fund.

Kai Ryssdal: We're going to get back to our philanthropy series now, the hows and whys of what we give. It's not always money.

Renee Ronnie: What I can give as far as monetary has shifted. However, I believe there's plenty of ways that we can give that don't include money.

Curtis McKinney: Clothes, items.

Sarah McDonald: Usually we'll give time.

Brian Mullady: Personally, I like to give blood.

Alton Findlay: I generally give to the Veterans' Association.

Jessica Cioce: Probably donating some toys for Toys for Tots.

Yosef Grodsky: I'm talking dollars, you know, hard dollars. Because that's what people need in order to pay their bills.

Kai Ryssdal: We spend, every year in this country, about $600 billion a year on K-12 education in this country. That's the all-in public number -- federal, state and local taxpayer money. Private philanthropists spend not even 1 percent of that, about $4 billion annually.

But that $4 billion goes a long way -- especially when it comes to school reform. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: On a winter day almost 100 years ago, Andrew Carnegie walked into Thomas Edison's recording studio in the Bronx and read from his essay "The Gospel of Wealth."

Andrew Carnegie: The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.

The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced. It was a plea to the rich to give their fortunes away to make society better. Carnegie spent much of his vast steel wealth building libraries and universities. Today a new crop of philanthropists is following his lead -- pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into public education.

Bill Gates: We have made public schools our top priority in the United States.

That's Microsoft's Bill Gates.

Real estate tycoon Eli Broad and the heirs to the Walmart fortune have also made education a priority. And they're not just spending money. They have an agenda.

The Walton Family Foundation favors school vouchers and charter schools. Broad's foundation teaches principals and superintendents to run schools like businesses. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- the biggest of the big -- wants to revamp just about everything.

Diane Ravitch: These days in education private funding is steering public policy.

Diane Ravitch is an education historian and the author of the "Death and Life of the Great American School System." She says these billionaires have too much influence.

Ravitch: Public policy should be made through our democratic process. It shouldn't be determined because a foundation offers a large grant and says do it my way.

Frederick Hess: Frankly, I think if private citizens and foundations want to put hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars toward improving schooling, we should probably regard this as a good thing.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Hess: What strikes me about this is not that these folks are doing anything differently than has historically been done in the past. It's that they're doing things educators don't necessarily like.

Like pushing for teachers to be evaluated based on student test scores. And trying to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. The Gates foundation also funds advocacy groups to push its agenda. And policy researchers like Rick Hess. It gives grants to media organizations like NBC, NPR, and yes, Marketplace for education coverage.

Hess doesn't doubt their good intentions.

Hess: I think it's absolutely the case though that they run a risk of stifling critical views and of marginalizing voices who are raising important and even constructive issues.

Yet, those who receive foundation money say it makes experiments in public education possible, especially when state budgets are drying up.

Christina Hall: You can hear in the background, we're still getting the finishing touches put on.

This is Urban Teacher Center in Baltimore. Co-founders Christina Hall and Jennifer Green have just moved into their first real office in a renovated mill. The startup has received more than a million dollars in Gates money to improve teaching in urban schools.

Green says that kind of money just isn't available from the government.

Jennifer Green: At this economic moment in particular, the role of national philanthropists is especially essential, because they tend to be more risk tolerant in seeding important new ideas that otherwise would not get off the ground.

Some of these ideas will inevitably fail. Last decade, the Gates Foundation spent a lot of money to promote small high schools. And then realized it wasn't really helping kids. But with public spending on education per student falling in many states and the hunt for new budget cuts still on, schools needing money may rely even more on the generosity of the people who have it.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Jennifer Green (left) and Christina Hall, co-founders of Urban Teacher Center in Baltimore. The startup has received about $1.4 million from the Gates Foundation, through the New Schools Venture Fund.

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