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Ken Libby: A Look at the Education Programs of the Gates Foundation

Our guest author today is Ken Libby, a graduate student studying educational foundations, policy and practice at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization involved in public education. Their flexible capital allows the foundation to change course, experiment and take on tasks that would be problematic for other organizations.

Although the foundation’s education programs have been the subject of both praise and controversy, one area in which they deserve a great deal of credit is transparency. Unlike most other foundations, which provide a bare minimum, time-lagged account of their activities, Gates not only provides a description of each grant on its annually-filed IRS 990-PF forms, but it also maintains a continually updated list of grants posted on the foundation’s website. This nearly real-time outlet provides the public with information about grants months before the foundation is required to do so.

The purpose of this post is to provide descriptive information about programmatic support and changes between 2008 and 2010. These are the three years for which information is currently available.

I extracted a list of all Gates Foundation education grants listed on publicly available IRS 990-PF forms (available through or the Gates Foundation website) for the years ending in 2008-2010. The foundation gave out nearly 1,300 education-related grants during these three years.*

I created a coding scheme with 20 different categories and then placed each grant in one or more category. Since some grants fall into multiple categories, I also weighted the funding across categories. For example, a $250,000 grant supporting early learning advocacy would fit into both the advocacy and early learning categories, and both categories would receive $125,000. This is far from perfect, but it’s better than not weighting grants at all.

The first table below lists each category and the amount of resources allocated. The second lists each category and the number of grants.

It should come as no surprise to see the small schools funds decreasing quite dramatically. The drop in funds allocated to charter schools, however, may come as more of a surprise to some. Alternative schools and private schools are no longer receiving the same level of resources they were just a few years ago. Investments in school/district reforms tapered off sharply between 2009 and 2010.

The foundation more than tripled the number of grants dedicated to development between 2008 and 2010. It’s important to note that I included the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching in both the development and human capital categories.

The development resources ($28,730,901) dedicated to the MET Project accounts for approximately thirty percent of the resources the foundation used for development during 2009 and 2010. However, the number of grants dedicated to development increased rather significantly during this time period even if you remove the MET Project grants.

In addition to funding more development projects, the foundation allocated $13 million to Common Core State Standards in 2010, up from just over $600,000 two years prior. Human capital projects, largely a side project in 2008, became a centerpiece of the foundations work in 2010.

Overall, then, there are two broad takeaways from these data. First, the foundation funds a wide diversity of programs, and there really is not a single dominant category. Second, the year-to-year changes reflect a great deal of flexibility in shifting resources between those priorities.

- Ken Libby


* I did not include employee matching grants or grants approved for future payment.

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