You've got to hand it to them: Bill and Melinda Gates don't give up.
For a few decades now, the Gateses have spent billions of dollars to push pet education projects they believed would improve public schools. Bill Gates has conceded that none worked as he had hoped - and critics say some have been counterproductive.
But the couple keeps trying - and now they have found a new way to try to push their agenda and have even more influence on public policy.
The Hill has reported that the couple has created an entity they are calling the Gates Policy Initiative, a lobbying organization headed by Rob Nabors, a director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who served as White House director of legislative affairs under President Barack Obama.
The initiative, the Hill said, will concentrate on global health and development; education - specifically improving educational achievement of black, Latino and rural students; and lifting people out of poverty and into jobs.
The policy shop will be independent from the foundation, which they have used to further education projects including support for Common Core State Standards. The Gates Policy Initiative will be a 501(c) (4) initiative under the U.S. tax code, which is different from the couple's foundation, a 501(c) (3).
Both 501(c) (3) and 501(c) (4) organizations are tax-exempt from federal income taxes, but they can't do the same things. According to the IRS, a 501(c) (3) organization is considered "charitable" and "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates." Private foundations under this tax designation may give general support grants to groups that use the money for lobbying.
Organizations designated as 501 (c) (4) are supposed to promote "social welfare" and may directly engage in some political activities.
Nabors told the Hill that the Gates Policy Initiative will work in a bipartisan way and does not plan to give political donations. He said:
"Bill and Melinda have a long history of engaging the executive branch, the legislative branch, in a bipartisan way, I don't see that changing. In terms of political giving or statements in support of political candidates, Bill and Melinda have been very clear that we will not be doing that type of activity through the (c)(4). We are focused almost exclusively on legislative outcomes and the lobbying effort."
In fact, Bill Gates was extremely successful, without a policy shop, in pushing public policy to support his education agenda. He and Arne Duncan, Obama's longtime education secretary, worked together to push states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, expand charter schools and evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores.
That push led to a big increase in standardized testing, and then a backlash in states and in Congress, which passed a successor K-12 law to No Child Left Behind that sent some of the federal power exercised by Duncan back to the states.
Gates Foundation grants have supported some worthwhile education efforts, but its biggest pushes in the past decades have not succeeded as planned. The foundation began its first big effort in this realm 20 years ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to divide big, failing high schools into smaller schools, on the theory that smaller schools worked better. Some do and some don't, but Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn't worked the way he had hoped (with some critics of Gates saying his project failed to address key issues that could have made the effort more successful).
After that, the foundation funded development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core and worked with Duncan to keep it alive despite backlash. During the Obama years, the foundation experimented with teacher evaluations by giving hundreds of millions of dollars to three public school systems and four charter management organization.
The experiments ignored warnings from assessment experts that using student test scores to evaluate teachers was neither fair nor valid. The school systems and charter organizations that took the foundation's money were required to use public money on the project, too, and they did. In 2013, Gates wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying it hadn't gone as he had hoped - and a 2018 report concluded the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.
Even before they opened their own lobbying shop, the Gateses had enough clout to work with state governments and the federal government, and were successful in leveraging their own money to bring in public dollars for projects they supported.
Now, assuming the lobbying shop works better than some of their education initiatives, they will have a new avenue through which to get their ideas into the public space.
This article was written by Valerie Strauss, a reporter for The Washington Post.