Special Report
School & District Management

Gates Seeks to Leverage ‘Race to Top’ Aid

By The Associated Press — October 26, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Not content with shaping education directly through schools, the biggest player in the school reform movement has an eye on moving education policy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent around $200 million a year on grants to elementary and secondary education.

Now the foundation is taking unprecedented steps to spend millions to influence the way the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools.

The federal dollars are unprecedented, too.

President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to give him the money as part of the economic stimulus so he could try new ideas to fix an education system that many agree is failing too many students.

Obama and the Gates Foundation share some goals that not everyone embraces: paying teachers based on student test scores, among other measures of achievement; charter schools that operate independently of local school boards; and a set of common academic standards adopted by every state.

Some argue that a private foundation like Gates shouldn’t partner with the government.

“When you team up with the government, you compromise your ability to be critical of the government, and sometimes you compromise your ability to do controversial and maybe unpopular things with your money,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. The institute is among the many that have received money from the Gates Foundation.

Another concern is that as a private foundation, Gates doesn’t have to disclose the details of its spending like the government does.

The big teachers’ unions dispute some of the goals shared by Obama and the foundation. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and that it’s a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.

“Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools,” the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, said in comments about the grant competition submitted to the Education Department.

The NEA added: “We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success.”

The American Federation of Teachers submitted similar comments. Together the unions have 4.6 million members.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan welcomes the foundation’s involvement.

“The more all of us are in the game of reform, the more all of us are pushing for dramatic improvement, the better,” Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Duncan’s inner circle includes two former Gates employees. His chief of staff is Margot Rogers, who was special assistant to Gates’ education director. James Shelton, assistant deputy secretary, was a program director for Gates’ education division.

Rogers said she joined the administration because she was inspired by its goals for helping kids graduate from high school and finish college.

The administration has waived ethics rules to allow Rogers and Shelton to deal more freely with the foundation, but Rogers said she talks infrequently with her former colleagues.

Bill Gates said his foundation is not the government’s partner in the new grant program, which the government has called the “Race to the Top.”

“It’s no secret the U.S. education system is failing,” Gates said. “We’re doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There’s no group-think.”

Gates stepped away last year from his daily role at Microsoft, the software company he co-founded, to focus on the work of his foundation.

Vicki Phillips, the Gates Foundation’s director of education, said it originally offered help to states and school districts that it was working with and that are in agreement with many of the foundation’s goals. She said the foundation shares Obama’s priorities and sees itself as part of a larger reform effort.

The foundation’s rising profile comes as the recession has gutted state and local budgets, which spend more money on education — roughly 35 percent — than anything else. Many states and districts can’t keep all their teachers on the payroll, let alone spend money on a high-stakes application for federal money that includes some 44 pages of rules.

In Minnesota, more than a dozen education department staffers are working with consultants from the McKinsey & Co. global consulting firm to prepare the state’s application, using about $250,000 in Gates Foundation money, spokesman Bill Walsh said.

When the foundation offered to help states apply for the grant money, it initially offered the $250,000 to only 15 states.

Officials in other states complained when they learned of the plan. The governors and chief school officers groups pressed the foundation to expand its offer, and it has now agreed to help any state that meets eight criteria, including a commitment to the common standards effort and the ability to link student data to teachers.

The foundation also is helping some districts that are eligible for a share of the money if they are working in partnership with nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation.

Not all the states are willing to discuss the help from Gates or their applications for the federal grants. In more than half a dozen states, education officials did not return phone calls seeking interviews about the applications.

Those who receive money from the Gates Foundation often are reluctant to talk about their work for fear of upsetting their benefactor.

AP Writer Donna Blankinship wrote this story and reported from Seattle. AP Education Writer Justin Pope contributed to this report from Charlotte, N.C.

Related Tags:

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Teachers and Students Need Support. 5 Ways Administrators Can Help
In the simplest terms, administrators advise, be present by both listening carefully and being accessible electronically and by phone.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion When Women Hold Each Other Back: A Call to Action for Female Principals
With so many barriers already facing women seeking administrative roles, we should not be dimming each other’s lights.
Crystal Thorpe
4 min read
A mean female leader with crossed arms stands in front of a group of people.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management Opinion Want a Leadership Edge? You Already Have What You Need
School leaders are faced daily with challenging situations. Here's how to prevent the tail from wagging the dog in responding.
Danny Bauer
4 min read
Screen Shot 2024 04 05 at 5.35.06 AM
Canva
School & District Management When Interventions Aim at Relationships, Academics and Attendance Improve
Connecting a student to adults—and peers—has been a missing link in early-warning systems.
4 min read
Image of a data dashboard.
Suppachok Nuthep/iStock/Getty