What is Cracked Foundations?
In 2021, Parents Defending Education created the Consultant Report Card as a means to expose how tax dollars were being spent by school districts to implement destructive policies and divisive teaching practices such as critical race theory, gender and queer theory, and social and emotional learning. To expand on this, we began to investigate how large philanthropic foundations use grant money to advance these practices in public schools.
As part of the investigation, we chose five foundations to evaluate spanning from 2017 through 2021. The foundations that were the focus of this research were the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Wallace Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Windward Fund. Overall, 70 school districts were identified as having received grant funding directly from these foundations. In total, the five profiled foundations gave out over $200 million to districts over the five years.
The grant amounts varied, ranging from a few thousand dollars to millions. District of Columbia Public Schools received $5,000 in 2019 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Battle Creek Public Schools in Michigan was given $31,219,073 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to “address structural bias and segregation in Battle Creek, Michigan, by providing quality and equitable opportunities.”
This data was collected through a combination of nonprofit IRS 990 tax filings, grant database websites, and foundation grant agreements with districts obtained via open records requests and publicly accessible board documents.
As a result, we identified that while some grant money was dispersed specifically for academic focused improvement, the majority went toward administrator and principal development, student behavioral programming, and social and emotional learning (SEL) implementation. Often, grant requirements dictated that school districts contract with specific consultants such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning CASEL.
Additionally, we identified that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Wallace Foundation granted directly to CASEL a combined total of $9,043,866 over the span of four years.
In the course of completing the research, documentation showed that grant money was specifically allocated in order to bring about “equitable” or “transformative” systemic change in educational institutions. For example, the Wallace Foundation operated several separate initiatives over the five-year span, including how university programming trains district and building administration.
Wallace’s initiatives also included social and emotional learning partnerships that involved school districts throughout the United States as well as the incorporation of local nonprofit afterschool programs. The work also included adult SEL integration to assist adults in developing their own SEL competencies.
The Wallace Foundation utilizes CASEL’s definition of SEL, which states that it is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
The information that follows is a snapshot of the involvement that philanthropic foundations have with the public education system.
- Total dollar amount per 990s (2017-2020): $202,875,159
- Public or open record requests filed: 71
- Total number of districts included: 72
Top Five Foundations
- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: $92,301,404
- W.K. Kellogg Foundation: $59,120,842
- Wallace Foundation: $48,564,837
- Windward Fund: $2,642,047
- Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: $2,030,000
Top Ten Districts
- Battle Creek Public Schools (MI) – $31,219,073
- Denver Public Schools (CO) – $13,421,629
- Tulare County Office of Education (CA) – $8,217,939
- School District of Palm Beach County (FL) – $7,066,785
- Dallas Independent School District (TX) – $4,398,711
- Tulsa Public Schools (OK) – $3,674,395
- Lindsay Unified School District (CA) – $2,000,000
- Jefferson County Public Schools (KY) – $1,890,000
- Broward County Public Schools (FL) – $1,845,182
- Columbus City Schools (OH) – $1,790,000
Case Study: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation states that its goal is to “significantly increase the number of Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty who graduate from high school, enroll in postsecondary institutions, and are on track in their first year to obtain a credential with labor-market value.”
The organization’s K-12 strategy is “driven by a direct focus on schools because that’s where teaching and learning happens.” Bob Hughes, director of K-12 education at the foundation, states that “we need to rebuild the public education system to get us closer to the effective and fair system that our students deserve. We do that when we lead with equity.”
As part of its “areas of focus,” the foundation has several categories it prioritizes, including “educator preparation,” “coherent instructional systems,” and “networks for school improvement.”
The foundation’s initiative titled “Networks for School Improvement” features grants for “partnerships between networks of schools and school support organizations so they can collaboratively solve common problems.”
A November 2020 document states that the initiative’s portfolio is “anchored in the notion that if intermediary organizations use equity and data-driven continuous improvement methods to introduce evidence-based solutions and tools to schools and systems, then those schools and systems can improve key outcomes.” According to the document, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $309 million in dollars granted for the project.
While many of the grant distributions went to organizations that serve various schools across the country, Denver Public Schools’ Foundation ($10,068,033), the Baltimore City Public Schools’ Fund for Educational Excellence ($11,160,252/ $12,263,277), the New York City Department of Education’s Fund for Public Schools Inc ($13,009,619) and the Tulare County Office of Education ($6,111,920) were given grants in order to implement equity-focused programming such as equitable grading.
The Denver Public Schools utilized the $10 million grant to create “College Ready On Track Network for School Improvement.” The initiative webpage states that its vision is to “enable educators, students, and communities, through intentional design and networked improvement, to dismantle systems of oppression and prepare all Black and Latinx students.”
As part of the improvement vision, Denver Public Schools implemented “Grading for Equity,” which are “grading practices that are Accurate, Bias Resistant, and Motivational.” The “College Ready NIC Working Theory of Improvement” document states that the primary driver for “demonstrating competency in math” is to develop systems and processes in district schools that are “designed to dismantle racist structures” through change ideas such as “Grading for Equity.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commitment states: “We cannot achieve any of these [three organizational priorities] without embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion as fundamental principles and practices across all of our work.”
According to the foundation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion webpage, the organization has “made DEI a top foundation priority,” and that it cannot achieve its desired impact without “focusing on DEI internally and with our partners.” The organization also offers multiple employee resource groups or ERGs such as the “Black Philanthropic Partnership,” “Out for Good & Allies,” and “Allies for Racial Justice.” The “focus” of the “Allies for Racial Justice” includes “learning about whiteness in an effort to help dismantle racism and be active allies.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation produced its “inaugural [DEI] progress report” that documents how the organization is “doing so far and serves as the first step toward holding ourselves accountable.” As part of the foundation’s progress towards DEI, it helped with the “formation of identity-based employee resource groups (ERGs)” that “serve as communities for colleagues to connect on issues of identity and spark cultural change at the foundation.”
The foundation’s report featured a section titled “Making Space for Reflection and Conversation,” which states how the foundation “introduced a series of conversation sessions, titled ‘Racism in America.’” These sessions “provided opportunities” for the organization to “share and learn through storytelling and discussion with other members of their identity groups.”
One session “helped white men see outside of their own perspectives.” Global Health Deputy Director Charles Eliot described himself as “a super-privileged white guy. And part of the ongoing challenge here is learning to look beyond what I know and who I am.” Program Coordinator Jordan Enos said “Ally for racial justice” were “powerful words to hold yourself accountable to. My inaction is acceptance of the norm and complicity in the continuation of white people’s legacy of violence. The time is now to be an ally and an advocate.”
The progress report states that the foundation “recognizes that DEI is not an initiative with an endpoint.”
As part of its ongoing effort, the foundation’s gender integration includes applying “an intersectional gender lens to their strategies and investments.”