Are billionaires conspiring to privatize the public education system?


Forbes this week released its list of the 500 richest people in the world. Of course, the top of the list was filled with the usual suspects: Gates, Slim, Buffett, Ellison, the Kochs, the Waltons. While these people are probably best known for their business endeavors, they also have a hand in philanthropy.

Education consistently finds itself among the industries where the world’s richest people choose to give or (sometimes controversially) exert their influence. Here’s a look at how the 10 richest people in the world have shaped education.

The Walton Family

In the No. 9 and 10 positions of Forbes list, respectively, are Christy Walton (and family) and Jim Walton, both heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune. Christy, the richest woman in the world, is the widow of Sam Walton’s son, John. Jim, the younges

t Walton son, is the chairman of Arvest Bank Group and Community Publishers and sits on the Wal-Mart board. Through the Walton Family Foundation, the family — along with the other Walton siblings, Alice and S. Robson — has donated extensively to education reform efforts, with over $164 million spent on grants in 2013 alone.

According to the foundation’s website, its efforts are focused on shaping public policy, creating quality schools, and improving existing schools. One of its focuses is on parent choice, and it has focused those efforts in 16 urban investment sites that include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and D.C. Still, some would argue that the family’s efforts undermine public schools by favoring privatized education via charter schools.

Sheldon Adelson

Perhaps best known to the general public for spending a whopping $150 million on Republican candidates in 2012 (and then promising to double down), casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson (ranked No. 8) has also donated a fair share of money to educational endeavors.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, he and his wife, Miriam, have donated $50 million to the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus, a private college preparatory school serving students from pre-K through high school. An additional $3 million funded, in part, a Hebrew SeniorLife education program that brings together older people and elementary students, and $2 million to Gateways: Access to Jewish Education programs that benefit special needs children.

Koch Brothers

Industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch are tied at No. 6, and, like Adelson, they are perhaps best known to the public for their involvement with conservative thinktanks and campaigns. Last fall, they grabbed education headlines when their political advocacy group became involved in a contentious school board race in Douglas County, Colo. That race saw unions and angry parents at odds with conservative efforts to essentially privatize public education while curbing union influence and directing tax dollars toward religious education.

Regardless, Charles’ foundation has provided research grants to around 250 U.S. colleges and universities, and has also helped fund George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies. David’s foundation has provided funding for PBS’ science education series “Nova,” a science and technology center at Massachusetts’ Deerfield Academy, a biology building and chemical engineering building at MIT, and the Bill of Rights Institute.

Larry Ellison

No. 5 on the list, Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison, is among billionaires who have, prompted by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, signed a pledge to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. Ellison has always been rather private about his charitable giving, though, saying in response to the group’s invitation, “Until now, I have done this giving quietly—because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter,” but that he hoped signing on would encourage others with wealth to do the same.

Here’s what we do know from various reports. According to The Wall Street Journal, the majority of Ellison’s assets are placed in a trust, with a minimum of 95% intended to go to charity. Furthermore, hundreds of millions of dollars from Ellison’s fortune has already gone to education and medical research via the Lawrence Ellison Foundation. Additionally, he owns a stake in educational technology company LeapFrog and Oracle produces a variety of enterprise software used by higher education institutions worldwide.

Amancio Ortega Gaona

Spanish fashion executive Amancio Ortega Gaona is the third richest person in the world. He’s known for keeping a low profile and for his casual nature, despite his wealth.

The Amancio Ortega Foundation counts a number of educational projects among its initiatives. These include Study in Canada Scholarships,  high school scholarships that send students to study in the U.S. for an academic year, a program aimed at educating the agricultural population of Tanzania, and an education innovation platform known as Aula PdB. He is also involved with the Paideia Foundation, which is aimed at modernizing Bulgarian education.

Carlos Slim Helu

Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helu comes in behind Bill Gates at No. 2. From 2010 to 2013, the businessman was the richest person on Earth. Through the Carlos Slim Foundation, he has also become one of the world’s greatest philanthropists.

Among his many contributions to education are a partnership with MOOC provider Coursera, focused on expanding Spanish-language graduate-level content to millions of people; 753 scholarships to study English at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, provided in collaboration with the UNAM Foundation; and graduate scholarships for Mexican students studying business, engineering, or international affairs at George Washington University.

Bill Gates & Warren Buffett

Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, Forbes’ No. 1 and No. 4, are listed together here because they are both trustees in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In fact, most of Warren Buffett’s fortune will be left to the foundation. The foundation has played a strong role in the education reform movement, supporting the formation of charter schools independent of school boards, efforts to attach teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, and the Common Core State Standards.

As with efforts by other foundations to reform public education — like those of the aforementioned Walton Family Foundation — the Gates Foundation has been seen by some as supporting efforts that would privatize the public education system. Critics also contend that a private foundation, not accountable to taxpayers, shouldn’t meddle in a system funded by tax dollars. NYU Professor and former U.S. education secretary Diane Ravitch has been one of the foundation’s most vocal critics in her books, speeches, and blog posts.

Beyond the foundation, Gates has also impacted education with his company’s technology. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office suite are the software entire generations grew proficient with in school computer labs.