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Originally published Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 7:10 PM

Gates Foundation pours funds into education advocacy groups

In Washington state as well as across the nation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is an influential, controversial and sometimes unnamed player in education policy debates.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Three of Washington's most prominent education advocacy groups share more than a desire to change the state's public-school landscape.

All three — the League of Education Voters, the Partnership for Learning, and Stand for Children — also receive significant financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Here at home, as well as nationally, the Seattle-based foundation is a powerful player in public education. It underwrites groups pushing for change, bankrolls projects and helps out-of-state organizations establish themselves here.

With that backing, Washington state now has a broader, stronger group of voices clamoring to bring much of the national education reform agenda here.

Some consider that progress, saying the foundation is helping bring Washington out of the backwater when it comes to education policy.

But others disagree, saying the foundation's deep pockets buy more influence than it deserves.

"Nobody elected Bill Gates to run our schools, and yet his money is driving so many policies and so many of these reforms," said Sue Peters, a parent and co-founder of the local chapter of Parents Across America, which has about 50 members and tracks the foundation's connections in this state.

Parents, she said, "are drowned out because we don't have the dollars behind us."

She and other critics also suspect the foundation is involved in more than meets the eye.

"It's starting to look a lot like they're controlling, like they're a puppet master," said Melissa Westbrook, an activist who writes for Save Seattle Schools blog. "It makes a lot of us very uneasy because we think there has to be more voices at the table."

Others, however, say it's misleading to characterize the foundation as the most powerful voice in education. As big as it is, they say, the combined force of the teachers unions, schools boards and administrators is even bigger.

Those groups have a tremendous advocacy apparatus, too, said Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which receives some Gates grants.

"I see the efforts on the part of foundations, not just by Gates, to build countervailing organizations as a good thing," Hill said.

The foundation says that while it's not shy about sharing what it thinks needs to be done, it doesn't claim to have all the answers.

The goal, said David Bley, director of the foundation's Pacific Northwest programs, is "to create more educational opportunities for kids. Period."

Bottom-up approach

In Washington state, Bley said, one of the foundation's latest grants — and one that will be a model going forward — is a $1.6 million effort in which it's working alongside mayors, community groups and school districts from South King County to raise high-school-graduation and college-attendance rates in that area.

Bley calls it a bottom-up approach — one in which the foundation has a seat at the table, but doesn't direct what happens.

Advocacy is just one part of the foundation's education efforts, and not the largest.

In the past few years, for example, it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a handful of school districts researching how best to identify and reward effective teaching.

In this state, it has also given many non-advocacy grants. In the past few years, those gifts have gone to everything from a relatively small effort to help the state PTA open more chapters at low-income schools to a $10 million gift aimed at improving science, technology, engineering and math instruction.

The foundation also is a major donor for two early-learning projects in White Center and Yakima — its largest education project in this state. And a few years ago, it gave Seattle Public Schools $6.9 million, much of it to help the district make better use of data.

But advocacy is a significant part of its work here, too.

In the foundation's view, Washington has been slow to adopt changes that would help more students succeed.

That's frustrating, said Bley, because Washington lags many other states when it comes to how many students graduate from high school, and earn a college degree. He pointed to a study that shows Washington ranks 46th when it comes to the percent of students who go directly from high school to college.

To change that, he said, the foundation's first priority is to raise concern about what's at stake, and that's why it supports groups like Partnership for Learning, Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters, which have been working together in a number of efforts, from lobbying for bills in Olympia to working to influence teacher contracts. These groups, in turn, see the foundation as a valuable ally

"What Gates and others are trying to do is strengthen community and give kids the future they need," said Lisa Macfarlane of the League of Education Voters.

Many say these three organizations helped to persuade Washington legislators to make some big changes in education policy a few years ago, such as revamping teacher and principal evaluations.

"I don't think the system could have done that on its own," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.

Advocacy grants

Some examples of recent grants at least partially based on advocacy:

• The League of Education Voters, Partnership for Learning and Stand for Children have each received more than $1 million over the past three to six years. For Stand for Children, that amount included $700,000 the foundation gave to help the organization start a Washington branch about four years ago.

• The League recently received $35,000 to help a statewide network of groups, Excellent Schools Now, write an "education reform" plan for Washington state. Stand and the Partnership are leaders of that coalition, too.

• A coalition of groups in Tacoma, which includes Stand for Children's chapter there, recently received a $150,000 grant. The coalition's first goal is to influence the next teacher contract there. The Our Schools Coalition, which did the same in Seattle last summer, received help from Gates, too.

Gates also gave $2.5 million to help Teach for America open shop in Washington state. While the foundation doesn't consider that advocacy, critics see it as another ill-advised attempt to bring the national education reform agenda to Washington state.

The League and the Partnership existed before the foundation started its education giving, but some consider Stand a so-called AstroTurf group — designed to look grass roots when it's not. Stand disputes that label, saying some of its staff and all 500 of its members are residents here.

"If people would just meet our members, or talk to our members, they wouldn't say that," said Beth Myers, spokeswoman.

The national Stand organization got into hot water this summer after Chief Executive Officer Jonah Edelman made disparaging comments about teachers unions at a conference in Colorado.

In his remarks, which were videotaped and placed on YouTube, he bragged about how Stand politically outmaneuvered the teachers unions in Illinois and that it was necessary to play win-lose politics with teachers union in several states — including Washington.

Myers said Edelman's statements, for which he has apologized, do not represent Stand's Washington office.

Bley said the episode is a good example that the foundation doesn't control the groups it supports or agree with everything they do.

And despite what critics think, he said the foundation wants a diversity of voices in education debates. The groups that receive foundation grants "have minds of their own, and they should," he said.

Still, concerns about the foundation's motives are prevalent enough that at least one group thought hard before deciding to seek a Gates grant.

Chris Eide, a former Seattle teacher, said some board members of his newly formed group, Teachers United, worried they would be labeled corporate sellouts.

They ultimately decided to apply, he said, because they didn't think the foundation would try to control what they do. And besides, he said, they knew they wouldn't be alone.

"Everybody," he said, "is getting money from the Gates Foundation."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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