Seeking to emphasize the link between education and the United States’ ability to promote business innovation, federal lawmakers last week turned to someone they regard as an authority in both areas: Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates.
Mr. Gates was the only witness before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at a March 7 hearing on “competitiveness,” including efforts to gird against foreign competition through improved mathematics and science education.
The philanthropist and Microsoft executive, a major supporter of efforts to improve high schools, said lawmakers could take an important step to improve U.S. competitiveness by allowing more skilled, foreign-born workers to remain in this country on H1B visas.
“The terrible shortfall in the visa supply for highly skilled scientists and engineers stems from visa policies that have not been updated in more than 15 years,” Mr. Gates told the committee. “[I]t makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals—many of whom are educated at our top universities—that they are not welcome here.”
Overhauling visa restrictions would have an additional benefit for the talent pool, some business and immigrant advocates have argued. A 2004 study showed that a strong percentage of the nation’s top mathematics and science high school students are the sons and daughters of immigrants who arrived on H1B visas. (“Immigrants’ Children Inhabit the Top Ranks Of Math, Science Meets,” July 28, 2004.)
The federal government currently caps the number of H1B visas issued at 65,000 per year. For the fiscal 2007 year, Mr. Gates noted that the supply of available visas nationwide ran out four months before the fiscal year even began on Oct. 1.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., asked whether an increase to 300,000 annual H1B visas would ease that crunch. That would be a “fantastic improvement,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates also called for increased efforts to improve high schools, through dropout prevention and increased academic requirements.
“Unless we transform the American high school, we will limit economic opportunities for millions of Americans,” he said.
Mr. Gates bemoaned students’ tendency to lose interest in math and science as they move from elementary to middle to high school. Schools need to take innovative approaches to connecting academic lessons with professional fields that excite students, he said, rather than simply presenting “math for math’s sake.”
Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, have devoted an estimated $1.3 billion through their namesake foundation toward improving high schools since 2000. (A grant from the foundation also helps support Education Week’s Diplomas Count report on issues related to graduation and post-high-school readiness.)
The hearing was held the same week that a bipartisan group of senators, include Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced the America COMPETES Act, legislation that would expand financial incentives for K-12 math and science teachers, as well as teacher training and other efforts.
The bill is based on bipartisan Senate legislation introduced near the end of last year’s session. Lawmakers said last week that they would take the unusual step of bypassing committee hearings and sending the bill directly to the Senate floor for a vote, probably not before mid-April.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Gates Cites Need to Improve High Schools, Boost Visas