The Impact of Venture Philanthropy on Local Politics

On July 16th, Shelby County (TN) Commissioner Walter Bailey, asked “What will we say to the Gates Foundation if we don’t pass the property tax increase requested by schools (which ultimately passed 2 weeks later)?” He was referring to the grant of 90 million dollars that the Gates Foundation awarded to Memphis City Schools back in 2009.

While philanthropy should be honored and revered, taxpayers and the city and county’s children should be first priority for all local and state government officials. After all, the bulk of funding for schools comes from taxpayers. So why worry about the Gates Foundation when it comes to local property taxes?

Perhaps we can better understand this high regard our local politicians have for the Gates Foundation once we learn more about the philanthropic method, called Venture Philanthropy.

Venture philanthropists differ from traditional philanthropists in that they take a more active role in addressing their cause. Venture philanthropists seek to fulfill their vision by finding the right people, develop them and hold them accountable for results, rather than merely donating to worthwhile charities.

Venture philanthropists are interested in a variety of causes including: affordable housing, banking, environment, education, health care, global warming, and local non-profits. The Kirsch foundation, is an active venture philanthropy organization and they have outlined some of their policy and legislative results on attached site: http://kirschfoundation.org/done/index_done.html. A quick perusal of the site shows a lot of activity for left leaning causes including influencing public policy and elections.

This “new” philanthropy has caught on so well that in 2007 and 2008 the US House of Representatives and the Senate created a “Philanthropy Caucus” in their respective chambers. However, neither caucus has been active as of yet.

The Memphis City Schools, as already mentioned, has benefited from the Venture Philanthropy practiced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–most notably in the form of a grant of 90 million dollars for a Teacher Effectiveness Initiative awarded in 2009. The program is a 7 year project to redesign how teachers are evaluated to improve overall teacher quality and educational outcomes. The project requires that the schools offer higher teacher pay, have different teacher evaluation methods (standardized tests, TRIPOD surveys), and have teacher union involvement (Memphis Education Association). Additionally the district had to chip in $36 million dollars and raise additional money from local philanthropists. The Memphis school board paid and now the unified school board also continues to pay $350,000 per month to The Parthenon Group, a consulting group made up of former Gates Foundation employees to develop a merit pay system for teachers. It will cost the district $45 million per year to sustain the standards and pay rates after 7 years. Suddenly that $90 million dollars is a lot less attractive, but the Gates foundation didn’t finish there with their interest in education in Memphis.

Last September, the Gates Foundation donated over $500,000 to the National Civil Rights Museum to develop a social media strategy for discussing education reform. They also contributed $250,000 to help Tennessee secure federal stimulus money from Race to the Top grants, which started Tennessee on the path toward adopting Common Core standards. (for more on Gates interest in Common Core see: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/08/common_core_whats_in_it_for_bill_gates.html)

The Gates Foundation supports Stand for Children, a nationwide education organization with a group in Memphis. Stand for Children has worked in campaigning for school board candidates, promoting Common Core, fighting for continued funding for pre-K programs and recently arguing for higher property taxes in Shelby County.

The Gates Foundation is working directly to affect education policy by tying it to free money (that really isn’t free) and indirectly through non-profits that are participating in the electoral process. Residents of Memphis and Shelby County (since they now share the same school system) must be vigilant to ensure that their voice is not drowned out by the Gates Foundation. Citizens pay the majority of costs for government services and compliance with the standards required by the grants. Further, when the grant money runs out, citizens will have to pick up the tab to avoid any dreaded budget “cuts.”

The impact of “seed” money from Venture Philanthropists like Gates should be looked at carefully with the best interest of citizens and the community coming first. It is the local taxpayers who will have to pay the higher property tax bill and it is their children that will be exposed to the radical changes coming from Common Core. We cannot let the Gates Foundation “buy” our self governance from us.