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Big money donations for schools lose some luster

Parents and activists question benefits of philanthropists' funding

Weeks after Northeast Portland parent Susan Barrett made national waves with a candid blog about school reform, there's been a growing body of interest in the politics of education money.

By coincidence, the nation's largest education philanthropist, Bill Gates, gave a July 23 interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said he sees his $5 billion investment in school reform during the past decade as a 'learning experience.'

The Gates-funded small schools - a now-defunct initiative at Portland's Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt high schools - were designed to improve attendance, behavior and relationships with adults.

Gates told the Journal that his $100 million effort to open 20 small schools nationwide did accomplish that goal. Then he added: 'But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about - whether you go to college - it didn't move the needle much,' Gates told the Journal. 'Maybe 10 percent more kids, but it wasn't dramatic. . . . We didn't see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.'

Still, he adds, 'We think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.'

Barrett, of Northeast Portland, is one of many local parents who've been voicing frustrations with large corporations and foundations, like Gates' foundation, that use their dollars to test their innovations on school children without a solid body of research to back it up.

Gates supports activities of the national Stand for Children Leadership Center - money that does not directly impact the local chapter, Stand officials say.

As Barrett explained: 'With (Stand for Children) inspiring many of its members to run for school board seats, and the funding it gives through its PAC, I worry we will lose a truly democratic discussion and action on education weighted in favor of corporate reforms.'

Barrett adds: 'Before I go further, let me just clarify, that those of us who are not on board with the 'corporate reform agenda' don't think everything is just peachy. We are not 'defenders of the status quo' as we are often accused, but we just don't see how the Arne Duncan and Bill Gates-type reforms are providing tangible, worthwhile outcomes for kids.'

Real gains

Portland Public Schools' biggest Gates investment was through the small schools. Gates has also given money to local organizations including NAYA, SEI Inc., Portland Children's Fund and CampFire USA, as well as a $100,000 grant to the Portland Schools Foundation in June to support its Cradle to Career Initiative.

Portland has another major tie with the Gates Foundation: former Superintendent Vicki Phillips is Gates' director of education for its College Ready program. In October 2009, Phillips gave the keynote address at the Council of Great City Schools gathering in Portland, also reflecting on the foundation's stumbles and work going forward.

'We assumed that structure made a big difference,' she said. 'So our early investments focused on small schools - and we saw improved attendance, graduation rates and levels of student engagement. But structure alone didn't significantly improve academic performance or increase college readiness. We only saw real gains when we intentionally paired the changes in structure with changes in the classroom.'

Next, she said, the foundation would turn its focus to studying how to best recruit, develop, assign, retain and compensate teachers.

(See her full speech here: www.gatesfoundation.org/speeches-commentary/Pages/vicki-phillips-council-great-city-schools.aspx )

Nefarious investments

Not everyone sees an inherent problem with big corporations' investments in schools. Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., he sees a double standard.

'Now that folks in the education space don't like some of the reforms that are being promoted by foundations, they've suddenly seemed to find foundation investments nefarious, whereas they've historically they've seemed enthusiastic about it,' Hess said.

That said, he notes: 'Today and then there's always this risk at always donors - can inadvertently end up stifling healthy debates if they're not careful about their giving.'

Hess said he appreciated Gates' honesty about how foundations have learning curves in the Wall Street Journal interview. 'He admitted we got some stuff wrong, here's what we think we learned from it and here's what we'll do better.'

The bottom line, Hess says, is that public schools are a public endeavor, and that knowledge is power.

'It's absolutely true that any meaningful school reform is going to impact public policy,' he says. 'It's good and healthy for people to argue and debate about it, and it's certainly fair to raise questions about a foundation's strategy.'

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