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Bill Gates Shouldn’t be the One ‘Reimagining’ NY’s Public Education

bill gates
By: Johanna Miller Director, Education Policy Center, Education Policy Center

This week, Governor Cuomo announced a “billionaire coalition” to lead New York’s essential reopening efforts: Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg, who has a dark record on protecting New Yorkers’ privacy rights, will lead contract tracing efforts; Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation has a history of high-profile, high-cost failures in education reform, will assist with “reimagining education;” and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who left the company amid allegations of covering up sexual misconduct and supporting censorship, will be in charge of technology initiatives.

What could go wrong.

Governor Cuomo’s collaboration with Gates is especially troubling. The announcement was met with outcry from educators, parents and students, and members of the advocacy community. Just days before, Cuomo created the “New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board,” a body with more than 100 members but not a single representative from the K-12 sector.

This led the State Education Department to form its own Task Force for reopening. This makes sense, because New York’s Constitution places responsibility for education with the Board of Regents, not with the Governor. So the Gates partnership came as a surprise.

The goal Cuomo assigned to the Gates Foundation — to “reimagine” education — is not new to them. The Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars across the country attempting to change schools. Their “reform” model is all about standardizing education. It relies heavily on high-stakes testing and make-or-break evaluations.

Without solutions that are based in principles of equity, and informed by students, parents, and educators of color, we will not close the gap.

Disappointingly, the Foundation’s efforts have been marked by one high-profile, expensive failure after another. For example, Gates’s seven-year, $1 billion initiative to improve teaching in several states did “more harm than good” and cost taxpayers almost $600 million.

The Gates Foundation was forced to publicly apologize for the failures of its small schools initiatives, and it was a backer of InBloom, the student data management company that collapsed after its privacy practices came under scrutiny.

Further, Gates was a primary driver of the Common Core, a set of national curricular standards and associated high-stakes tests that arguably lead to far more controversy than it did actual educational improvements.

Indeed, perhaps the most durable outcome of the Common Core is the disappointing narrowing of school curricula known as “teaching to the test,” which withered arts education, health and sex ed, social studies, and other subjects the Common Core devalues. After 10 years of Common Core, American students have demonstrated no significant improvements relative to other developed nations.

Gates has decried the so-called achievement gap between white and Black students in the U.S. — noting, correctly, that our white and wealthier students rank among the best in the world, while our Black and lower-income students lag far behind. He has spent a lot of his own (and the public’s) money on schemes to shrink this gap, usually by focusing on things like individual responsibility, and low teacher quality.

But for all his efforts, he has yet to seriously tackle systemic barriers: the bias, discrimination, and racial segregation that hold Black students down.

In New York, there’s no equitable path forward that doesn’t confront systemic racism.  

New York school districts with higher proportions of students of color have less funding, fewer advanced courses and enrichment activities, outdated and culturally irrelevant curricula, and armed police patrolling hallways and classrooms. In many neighborhoods, school buildings themselves expose students to toxic air, water, and chemicals.  

If we refuse to recognize how racism impacts students, we can’t begin to reverse it. Without solutions that are based in principles of equity, and informed by students, parents, and educators of color, we will not close the gap.

Governor Cuomo, we agree: Now is the time to reimagine public education as we know it. Let’s reimagine entrenched underfunding, segregated schools and classes, one-size-fits-all approaches to accountability, poor curriculum, lack of equipment and technology, and leaving vulnerable kids behind every year. This is the time, but handing the reigns to the Gates Foundation is not the way.

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