The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s largest philanthropy, and one with increasing influence on American K-12 education. It has heavily funded the Common Core, a national initiative that is reshaping textbooks, replacing most state tests, overhauling teacher training and effectiveness measurements, and creating national data repositories for student grades and behavior.
Gates jump-started the Core by giving $10 million to the Chief Council of State School Officers to write the education standards that 46 states have now adopted. Gates gave the group another $10 million to support the Core, and $475,000 to help develop corresponding national tests. Gates has paid Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New York, and Louisiana departments of education to revise teaching, curriculum, and tests to fit the Common Core. It is funding books, games, videos, and other instructional materials that thousands of children will use, and research on ways to make educational data easier to share among schools, governments, and companies. Of the $163 million Gates has spent on Common Core, $125.5 million went to persuading politicians, teachers, and business leaders to support it.
“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” said Jay Greene, who directs the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Gates hasn’t been as effective in promoting other policies, like tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, Greene said.
State legislatures get busy in the spring, and nearly half are considering legislation that would expand school choice. From Texas to Wisconsin, and South Carolina to Nevada, at least 15 states are considering new or bigger voucher programs, and another six the same with charter schools.
Perhaps the most-watched state is Texas, where no voucher program exists and about 100,000 students sit on charter school wait lists. Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has introduced legislation to lift the state’s limit on charter schools (now 215) and has promised to propose vouchers for poor children.
Parents across the country are also examining their education options. In Milwaukee, GreatSchools helps some 17,000 families each year find a school that fits them in a city with vouchers, online, magnet, and charter schools. Sometimes the decision is easy, but that’s not the case for one mother, Mindy Hansen, with nine children, six adopted and several with special needs. They attend four different schools.
Hansen started adopting kids she mothered in foster care. Several whizzed through elementary-school math and are now taking geometry online. Another cannot focus in large groups, so she moved him to a smaller school. “She’s practically a professional bus driver,” said Jodi Goldberg, a friend. —J.P.
Ohio homeschool graduate Sarah Fowler, 24, wasn’t planning to run for elected office last summer. Then she discovered the man running for her region’s state school board seat only supported traditional public schools. She thought someone who favored voucher programs and charter schools would be better, so last August—92 days before the election—she announced her candidacy.
Fowler has an entrepreneurial spirit: At age 11 she began an egg-selling business. She campaigned hard on a platform in favor of parental rights, shifting education funding from property taxes, and reviewing the history curriculum for accuracy. After appearing at some 80 events and distributing 30,000 fliers, she beat out a lawyer and a heavily degreed scientist, with 60 percent of the vote.
Fowler hoped her first state school board meeting “would be a transition time,” but “that did not happen.”
At her first meeting, Fowler voted on Ohio’s student restraint and seclusion policies. She now reads hundreds of pages of documents on state policies between meetings.
Attending trade shows, doing graphic design for the family farm, and learning independently have helped her acclimate, Fowler said: “These things were not huge hurdles because I’ve done them almost all of my life.” —J.P.