“We don’t want to be part of the controversy.” That’s what Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, told NPR when asked why the foundation’s work on reproductive health avoided support for abortion care. While this was a grave disappointment to global women’s health advocates, it wasn’t altogether surprising. Despite the Gates Foundation’s staggering wealth and influence and willingness to try new – sometimes controversial – approaches, it steadfastly steers clear of political fights.
That’s why a recent award of $376,635
to a right-wing lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council
(ALEC), is raising eyebrows, and more, in progressive and philanthropy circles. Knowingly or not, the Gates Foundation has just stepped on a political landmine.
ALEC is engaged in all of the fiercest political fights of our day – working hand-in-hand with companies seeking to roll back healthcare reform, environmental protections, workers’ rights, corporate accountability, and taxes on the wealthy. The Gates Foundation, which is “dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live a healthy and productive life,” should know that those aims are incompatible with ALEC’s efforts to undermine Americans’ health, safety, and economic security to benefit the bottom line of its corporate backers.
The stated purpose of the Gates Foundation grant to ALEC is “to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement.” On the face of it, this pales in comparison to ALEC’s other education work, which promotes large-scale voucher and privatization schemes that would destroy, not improve, the public education system.
Interestingly, Lee Fang recently reported
in The Nation
on the various ways that the Gates Foundation and ALEC are working – independently – to promote for-profit distance learning. These programs typically undermine public schools while benefiting technology and software companies, including Microsoft. The educational value of such programs is also highly contested.
But the bigger issue here is that the Gates Foundation – a grant-making behemoth – is legitimizing ALEC and all of its egregious lobbying by directly supporting a portion of the group’s work. One can only hope that the Gates Foundation staff responsible for the grant were narrowly focused on education policy and unaware of ALEC’s broader agenda. Either way, the foundation seems headed into the middle of a controversy, which is remarkable for an organization that took pains to avoid “the controversy” in the reproductive health arena.
For a primer on ALEC, see People For the American Way’s recent report
When state legislators across the nation introduce similar or identical bills designed to boost corporate power and profits, reduce workers rights, limit corporate accountability for pollution, or restrict voting by minorities, odds are good that the legislation was not written by a state lawmaker but by corporate lobbyists working through the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a one-stop shop for corporations looking to identify friendly state legislators and work with them to get special-interest legislation introduced. It’s win-win for corporations, their lobbyists, and right-wing legislators. But the big losers are citizens whose rights and interests are sold off to the highest bidder.