Beware of Educrats Peddling “Evidence-Based” Solutions

Photo credit: World Economic Forum (CC-By-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: World Economic Forum (CC-By-SA 2.0)

In an unguarded moment in 2009, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute admitted that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is running U.S. public education: “It’s not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education.” A new book reveals how right he was.

Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence was written by Megan Tompkins-Stange from the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. To examine the influence of private foundations on U.S. education policy, Tompkins-Stange spent several years interviewing officials from four philanthropies that are deeply involved in education issues – Gates, and the Eli and Edythe Broad, Ford, and W.K. Kellogg foundations. She notes that “[a]rguably, no social sector in the United States is more heavily impacted by foundations than K-12 education,” and no foundation is more influential than Gates.

The problem she examines was brought into stark relief early in the Obama administration, with its Gates-financed Common Core national standards and other “reforms”: that powerful, wealthy private groups are using their influence to bypass democratic processes and impose their preferred policies on public schools. Not only are parents and other citizens shut out of education policy, they don’t realize the strings are being pulled by organizations they never heard of.

As former U.S. Department of Education (USED) official – and trenchant Common Core critic – Ze’ev Wurman once asked about how parents could register a complaint, “Will Bill Gates have an 800 number?”

Bill doesn’t have an 800 number, but he probably has every top USED official on his speed dial. One reason, as Tompkins-Stange reports, is that former Education Secretary Arne Duncan awarded top USED staff appointments to officials of either the Gates Foundation (such as Jim Shelton, formerly program director for education at Gates) or grantees of the Gates Foundation (such as Joanne Weiss, formerly of the Gates-funded NewSchools Venture Fund). So when USED was – unconstitutionally — crafting federal education mandates, Gates policy preferences had the inside track from the beginning.

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post recently published an interview with Tompkins-Stange conducted by Jennifer Berkshire of the EduShyster website. In that interview Tompkins-Stange drew two inferences from an Obama administration staffer’s verbal slip in referring to “the Gates administration.” “The source is acknowledging,” Tompkins-Stange said, “that the close coupling between Gates and [USED] under Arne Duncan was great because it pushed their agenda forward. But on the other hand, they’re acknowledging that it’s somewhat problematic in terms of democratic legitimacy.”

Not that the Gates/USED mandarins were particularly concerned about usurping democracy:

It was my sense [Tompkins-Stange said] that most of the people I talked to hadn’t engaged – at an organizational level – with the larger question of “What’s our role in a liberal democracy?” or “Is this the right thing for us to do as a foundation?” . . . The democracy part of it was not really a part of the equation in  terms of their day-to-day discussions. It was more about, “How do we get the elites who can really move this policy on board?”

But her contacts slid past the philosophical and constitutional problems by emphasizing the supposed benefits of the technical approach advocated by Gates and the other foundations (remember Bill’s famous comparison of education to electrical outlets). The predominant mindset was that evidence-based policy is more important than democratic structures and citizen participation. Trains must run on time, you know.

But Tompkins-Stange pointed out practical problems with this worldview. One is that schemes created and imposed by elites historically don’t work when their development excludes the people expected to live under them. Human beings are not machines, and they stubbornly refuse to operate according to the Gates manual.

Another drawback – as admitted by some of the officials she interviewed – is that the cited “evidence” is often weak or non-existent:

There was a real cognitive dissonance that people reflected on in interviews. In one breath they’d say that what the foundations were doing was evidence-based. But in the next breath they’d note that the evidence isn’t all that great, or acknowledge the fragility of the evidence’s underlying assumptions. Another Gates source said, “I don’t know anyone in philanthropy who can chart a logic model. All these people just put arrows between boxes and think it means something.”

Think of that the next time you hear an educrat or foundation official touting “evidence-based” education solutions.

This is what happens when unaccountable elites evade the Constitution to impose centralized control. Tompkins-Stange’s book confirms the wisdom of the Founders and spotlights a problem that must be fixed if we are to remain a self-governing republic.