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Why A Group Of Teachers Protested Outside The Gates Foundation, Ed's Biggest Charity

Kyle Stokes
Protesters are seen gathered outside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

At first, Julianna Dauble balked at the idea of protesting against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We've all gotten Gates money one way or another," said Dauble, a fifth-grade teacher in Renton. "I don't know a single teacher who has not gotten Gates money for computers, different grants, small schools initiatives — all the things he's done in the Seattle area, especially."

In fact, the Gates Foundation sends more money to K-12 education causes around the U.S. than any other philanthropy, and some teachers have come to regard that influence as a threat.

'He Never Asked Teachers'

Approximately 150 teachers took those concerns to the foundation's front door Thursday evening for a rally and a march through Seattle's downtown streets. They protested Gates' funding of projects, including the development the Common Core standards, that some teachers say only serve to create more intense focus on standardized testing.

"[Bill Gates] really is the number one agent of change right now. His attitude about education is, ‘It’s the teachers that need to change, and it’s the standards and the testing that really will improve [schools],’ and he never asked teachers," said Dauble, one of the protest's principal organizers. "Really, the issue is class size, support for teachers and poverty."

All of those issues are on Gates' radar, says Vicki Phillips, who heads the Gates Foundation's education initiatives. Phillips says she feels the protesters' concerns about "assessment, accountability and poverty" are legitimate.

"In the U.S., the way to address many of these issues is a much, much better education system. That's a goal that we all share — the teachers that are at the protest today [and] the teachers that we talk to across the country," she said (listen to full interview). 

Phillips says the foundation has been open to discussing teachers' concerns. For instance, anxiety has cropped up over the rollout of the Common Core — a rigorous set of expectations for what skills students should master at the end of each grade level — and the new standardized tests written to match these standards. The foundation recently called for a moratorium on using the results of these tests in evaluating teachers or students, Phillips points out. 

Gates' Education Clout And The Debate About Standards

Measured by the grant dollars it issues, Gates' influence in the K-12 arena has multiplied in recent years.

Even as other philanthropies boost their education investments, Gates' K-12 portfolio is growing faster, says Michigan State University political science professor Sarah Reckhow. Her figures show the foundation alone gave more than $268 million to K-12 education in 2010, a nearly three-fold increase from 2000.

The protesting teachers say the Gates Foundation's influence is drowning out teacher and parent voices. They point to the Common Core standards, which Washington state schools have now adopted. As a Washington Post analysis showed, Gates grants helped get Common Core development off the ground in the first place, and were key to the standards' swift adoption in all but seven U.S. states.

"We now have a blending of foundations, corporations and government making decisions for education policies that used to be made by local school boards, by parents, by teachers. All of that has been circumvented by [Bill Gates]," said Renton teacher Susan DuFresne.

'Creating More Options' For Ed, Or Narrowing Investments?

The foundation's namesake himself has said the implication that the foundation is driving a political agenda is unfair. In his recent interview with the Post, Bill Gates said the foundation is trying to seed research on the Common Core and other education policies out of a genuine desire to figure out what works.

"We create more options, but our voice is not there when the final decision of what to scale up is made. That's a governor, a superintendent, a school board who decides all those things," Gates told Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton.

While Michigan State's Reckhow says she finds no reason to doubt the foundation's motives, her research has found that many of the largest education philanthropies — from Gates, to the Broad and Walton Family foundations — are giving to the same recipients. 

"There is a lot of pressure and a growing trend toward assessing things with hard data and being able to account for results and return on investment. When you impose that on any system, including education, you get certain types of organizations that are better at showing results than other organizations," Reckhow said. "I think that has resulted in a narrowing of what qualifies as a worthwhile investment to these foundations."

How Many Teachers Agree With The Protesters?

It's not clear how many teachers share the protesters' concerns about the Gates Foundation or the initiatives it supports.

Last year, polls from the nation's two major teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — showed educators were concerned about the implementation of the Common Core. But in both polls, three in four teachers generally supported the new standards.

But AFT president Randi Weingarten recently said her union's Innovation Fund would no longer accept Gates money, a decision prompted by "the level of distrust" of the foundation among her rank-and-file, according to Politico.

Chris Eide, who co-founded the advocacy group Teachers United Washington, says the educators with whom he works "are upset there's so much energy going specifically into pointing fingers at the Gates Foundation."

"The view among a lot of teachers is that this is a tremendous resource that we have in our backyard," said Eide, whose group has received Gates Foundation money in the past. "And we need to work together with them to make sure that those monies are being channeled into the places that have the highest likelihood of positively impacting kids and our teaching profession."

Dauble says some teachers don't speak up because they don't feel sufficiently informed or because they fear possible consequences.

"People are feeling like this isn't going to make a difference, or they're afraid there's going to be some kind of retribution for speaking out," said Dauble. "[Gates] is seen by so many as a very benevolent person."

The protesters are also planning events on the University of Washington campus Friday.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.