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Gates, Broad foundations stop contributing to election-awareness campaign on education

Resource type: News

Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) |

by Clay Holtzman, Staff Writer About 16 months ago, Bill Gates and fellow billionaire Eli Broad teamed up to make education reform a top issue in the 2008 presidential election. With a pledge to spend up to $60 million, the two influential philanthropists launched a nonpartisan campaign called Strong American Schools to spark a rigorous national debate about education. Had all the funding been supplied, the campaign would have been one of the most well-financed advocacy efforts in U.S. presidential election history. But with Nov. 4 looming, education appears to have relatively low visibility. And the Gates and Broad family foundations have stopped contributing to the campaign after putting in a total of about $24 million. The foundations say the campaign has made education an important issue, and there is no need to spend more. A program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said the Seattle-based foundation believes it has accomplished the goal of making education a topic for candidates, after contributing $16.4 million, and is not likely to spend more on the effort between now and Election Day. If we spend less than the maximum, it is because it is a reflection of the strategies we are executing, said Marie Groark, senior program officer with the Gates Foundation. She acknowledged that it’s a tough environment for the issue to gain traction. We are aware that there are significant competing priorities on the agenda, she said. The Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, with $2.5 billion in assets, said its spending – about $7.6 million – reflects the success of the campaign. I think the real question is, are we pleased with the results of the campaign, and yes we are, said Karen Denne, a Broad Foundation spokeswoman. Denne could not say if Broad will give more money to Strong American Schools. For its part, the education campaign, branded Ed in ’08, says it has been successful in steering the direction of the presidential dialogue toward education – if only temporarily – and that the Republican and Democratic nominees have cited its policy positions, particularly in recent weeks. I think it is clear that we have embedded into the mindset of the campaign that the crisis of our schools is an essential part of the domestic policy program, said Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools and a former deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. In addition to Lampkin, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, is leading the Strong American Schools campaign. But other experts say education has fallen to the wayside during this cycle, unlike in previous elections. For some reason in 2004, everyone wanted to be the education president. In 2008, nobody wants to be the education president, said Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy with the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Network, a collective of reform-minded nonprofit groups. Fege said that in 2004 much of the attention was generated by No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that sought to improve schools by increasing accountability. But this year getting attention for education is more difficult because, among other things, 38 states are cutting their education spending this school year. Nationwide, the U.S. annually spends about $525 billion on education, according to Fege. Though Lampkin declined to provide spending details, he said Strong American Schools has had 800 meetings or contacts with candidates, their staff or key advisers, has supported or attended nearly 900 events in key states and has collected more than 33,000 petition signatures. The Broad Foundation says about 4,000 news articles have referenced the education campaign. The campaign has spent about $10 million on ads in key battleground states, out of its $24 million budget. The organization is not endorsing candidates or legislation. Lampkin said presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama have cited at least two of Strong American Schools’ three policy pillars: creating clear learning standards, improving teaching, and giving adequate time and support for student learning. Still, with less than six weeks until Election Day, education is not broadly recognized as a leading issue for candidates or national news media. Experts say it is not likely to stage a dramatic comeback. People are not saying that education is not important, said pollster Mark Hibbits. But the issue of the day – and the remainder of this presidential race – is going to be dealing with finance and economic issues.

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