Gates Foundation’s New Billions Viewed as Boon, Challenge for Education Giving

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The recent announcement by the investor Warren E. Buffett that he will donate some $30 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spurring questions about what the gift will mean—and should mean—for education giving at the nation’s wealthiest philanthropy.

The Gateses made clear during a public forum with Mr. Buffett that education will stay a top priority for the foundation, whose biggest focus is on issues of global health and development. Bill Gates, who is the chairman of the Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., called ensuring a high-quality education for all U.S. students “our second big goal.”

“You could say we’re five or six years into our education thing, and we need another probably three to five years before it’s very clear which models are working,” he said at the June 26 New York City forum.

The Gateses did not offer any specifics for how the Buffett gift might affect their education giving, and a Gates spokeswoman also declined to do so, other than to reiterate the philanthropy’s commitment to the work.

The foundation has an endowment of more than $29 billion. Since 2000, it has committed about $1 billion to support the start-up of small high schools or the restructuring of large schools into smaller units. Disappointed by the outcomes of some of its small-schools work, the foundation increasingly has been giving money to help urban districts with broader efforts to improve curriculum and instruction in high schools.

Call for R&D

Mr. Buffett announced last month that he plans to donate most of his fortune, estimated at more than $40 billion, to several philanthropies, with the majority going to the Gates Foundation. The gift will go out in annual contributions of stock from Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha, Neb., company he founded.

“This is going to be a very big investment for a long time,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, whose work has received financial support from the Gates Foundation. “The question really is, their feet are wet, what do you do if you want to make a fundamental difference?”

Mr. Hill is hoping the foundation will shift toward a major emphasis on research and development in education, suggesting there remain far too many unanswered questions about how to successfully educate disadvantaged students.

“The foundation would actually ask for innovative ideas in instruction and instructional management, in integration of social services, in use of online and other resources,” Mr. Hill explained. Beyond that, he suggested, it should back efforts to implement pilot initiatives using those methods.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said the growth at the foundation poses challenges.

“There’s a danger that, kind of like moths to a flame, reformers and researchers will flow to whatever Gates is doing, because there will be such a concentrated amount of resources.”

He added, “They’ve got to redouble their efforts to ensure that they’re speaking to folks who are thinking about the challenges in different ways, and seeking out thoughtful criticism and feedback.”

The Gates Foundation has provided funding to support Diplomas Count, an annual Education Week report on high school graduation.

PHOTO: Warren Buffett, right, appears with Bill and Melinda Gates at the New York Public Library on June 26 to discuss his donation.
—Stuart Ramson/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Page 17

Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Gates Foundation’s New Billions Viewed As Boon, Challenge for Education Giving
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