Philanthropy certainly has its place in education. Without it, many university classes would be conducted in tents and football games would be played in cow pastures. Givers are entitled to have their voices heard on policy as well as have their names inscribed on buildings. At what point, though, do the strings that billionaires attach to their contributions begin to impede real progress?
An Education Week article, linked below, raises that question again, noting that many individual philanthropists and foundations are horning in, apparently as never before, in the formulation of educational policy. Increasingly, it seems, people in power, including President Obama, are more eager to listen to the views that billionaires of varying degrees of expertise have to offer on education than what the education professionals have to say.
Why? Two reasons, mainly. The wealthy donors come bearing free (save for the strings), nontax money, and they have largely succeeded in convincing elected officials that the main problem with education is educators. Elected officials would much rather hear that than the truth, which, at least in the case of Texas, is an inadequately and inequitably funded school finance system.
Billionaire Bill Gates, through his foundation, has given millions of dollars to various educational causes, including assistance to states competing for federal Race to the Top grants. Much of the money, I am sure, has been wellspent. But Gates also is increasingly trying to impose his own views on educational policy and taking a slap at teachers in the process. He recently urged states, for example, to quit paying teachers extra money based on their experience and advanced degrees.
What makes Bill Gates think that is such a great idea? One of the major problems with teacher retention in Texas is that many promising educators quit after only a few years in the classroom because they know their chances for financial advancement are extremely limited. Experience is invaluable, and Gates insults teachers by suggesting otherwise.
Does he also propose that Microsoft stop paying its experienced, valuable employees more than its new hires? I don’t think so.
Gates obviously is a very successful businessman and knows a lot about software. He also is to be commended for wanting to share his wealth to help improve the public schools. He is entitled to his opinions about public education, but he isn’t an educational expert.
Who elected him? His money, the commodity that officeholders love.
Let him and his fellow philanthropists be heard, but don’t let them dictate.