02/27/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

NY ObamaCore Panel Must Scrutinize Influence of Political Philanthropy on Implementation

Recent coverage and commentary on the controversial New York Regents Research Fund (RRF), hasn't completed the circle of political influence philanthropists have exerted on state education policy. The RRF is a privately funded think tank nested within the State Department of Education (SED) which is heavily involved in the implementation of the Common Core Standards Initiative, an effort to get states to adopt national K-12 academic requirements in English and math.

The missing link is the role the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has played every step of the way. That the implementation of Common Core in New York is being driven by private contractors that influence public decisions is in some ways a fitting end for an initiative that has sidestepped transparency and democratic processes from the start.

Leveraging its unrivaled $40 billion endowment, the Gates Foundation gave millions to Common Core's four major developers: the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, Inc., and Student Achievement Partners.

The pro-liberal arts group Common Core, Inc. received $550,000 from Gates to create English curriculum maps aligned to the standards. Then, incongruously, New York awarded the state K-12 math curriculum contract to Common Core, Inc., despite its nearly non-existent math experience.

The D.C.-based Fordham Institute, a longtime beneficiary of Gates funding, received grants to review the quality of the standards. Massachusetts' Board of Elementary and Secondary Education relied upon the evaluations of three Gates grantees -- Fordham, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and Achieve, Inc. -- to validate its decision to adopt Common Core.

At an event sponsored by Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott recalled a conversation in which Gates Foundation Education Director Vicki Phillips emphasized that funding they had discussed was contingent upon the state adopting Common Core. Gates grants seem to come with Common Core strings attached.

These examples illustrate the financial self-interest and insular practices that propelled Common Core's hasty ascent. Independent research depends on private funding; however, there is a risk that a single interest can monopolize the market, diminishing diversity of opinion and creating a self-promoting reform.

Now, a think tank embedded within the NYSED receives 20 percent of its budget -- $3.3 million -- from Gates.

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the state legislature-appointed NYS Board of Regents, described the RRF as a response to department vacancies caused by budget cuts. It's a great way to advance one's own agenda, but less so in a public setting in which transparency is supposed to matter.

So Tisch joined Gates in this web of conflict of interest by jumpstarting the RRF with a $1 million pledge from her personal foundation, the James S. and Merryl H. Tisch Fund. The RRF's highest paid fellow earns just under $200,000 annually which, compared to SED salaries, is second only to Commissioner King's $212,500. Despite rewriting the state curriculum and aligning it to national requirements adopted without public input or legislative vote, the fellows are not public employees and therefore not subject to state public officer or ethics laws.

Where is the public oversight when state ethics laws are apparently being circumvented? New York State law defines lobbying as "any attempt to influence ... any determination ... by a public official, or by a person or entity working in cooperation with a public official related to a governmental procurement."

These private funders, advocates for governmental action that includes spending tens of millions of dollars for professional development and instructional materials, tread perilously close to the line.

Governor Cuomo's formation of a panel to provide recommendations for how to improve Common Core in the wake of criticism of its "fast track" rollout and concerns over the Board of Regents' competency offers an opportunity for oversight. To properly investigate Common Core, the panel must go to the source of implementation, the Regents Research Fund, and determine if, as a private charity developing education programs under a contract with the state, its work, ethics agreements and statements of financial interest can be accessed via the Freedom of Information Act or governmental probes.

The merits of Common Core aside, this vertical integration of education reform by philanthropists raises a question: Are policymakers are accountable to the public or to their benefactors?


Katherine Apfelbaum is the Peters Education Fellow at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank

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