Equity & Diversity

Gates Urges U.S. to Be Educational Change Agent

December 03, 2008 4 min read

Bill Gates, the co-founder of the world’s largest philanthropy, last week called on President-elect Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to expand support for education and make the federal government “a dynamic agent of school reform,” even as the nation struggles through grim economic times.

“[L]ong-term strategic interests do not disappear in a downturn,” Mr. Gates said here at George Washington University. “Developing the talent of our young people, addressing poverty, preventing disease: These are always smart, no matter what the outlook.”

In a Dec. 3 policy address in which he also called for greater federal spending on public health and development to help families in poor nations, the software magnate and co-founder of the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation outlined key areas in which he believes the federal government should expand its support of U.S. education, particularly to help low-income and minority students.

Those include boosting the recruitment and retention of effective teachers; promoting high standards and adopting aligned curricula; making postsecondary completion a national priority; and building data systems to help drive “evidence-based reform” in high schools and colleges.

Mr. Gates also urged that any economic-stimulus package passed by Congress not only include support for school construction, a priority cited by Mr. Obama and congressional leaders, but also provide aid to states to avoid cuts in higher education.

Mr. Gates spoke with CNN after his address:
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‘Fiscal Vigilance’

At the same time, Mr. Gates urged leaders in Washington to “force a new fiscal vigilance” that demands “smarter spending” and measures the impact of government investments.

The address comes as the Gates Foundation itself is feeling effects of the downturn. Even as it expects its giving to rise by about 10 percent in 2009, the foundation recently said that the projected increase is lower than previously planned.

Mr. Gates delivered his Washington speech three weeks after the Gates Foundation unveiled a retooled education grantmaking strategy. The education priorities outlined in last week’s speech echo top priorities in those new plans.

In addition to making shifts in its secondary education agenda, the foundation is launching a major new postsecondary strategy, and plans a stepped-up emphasis on research and advocacy to support the new agenda. (“Strategy Retooled at Gates,” Nov. 19, 2008.)

“For the sake of our students and the good of the country, we need to dramatically increase the number of low-income students who get postsecondary degrees,” Mr. Gates said in the speech. “These are what let them earn a living wage.”

And he urged federal lawmakers to devise “financial incentives that reward college completion.”

Signs of Support

Mr. Gates said he’s seen signs of support for the education agenda he outlined. “President-elect Obama and a number of important voices in the House and Senate have expressed support for some of these steps,” he said. “I hope their support intensifies during this crisis.”

Bill Gates, in a Dec. 3 speech in Washington, urges federal lawmakers to continue to support education, as well as initiatives focused on global health and poverty, despite poor U.S. economic conditions that are straining the nation’s finances. Mr. Gates’ foundation has committed roughly $2 billion this decade to projects to improve U.S. high schools.

Mr. Gates added, “If the federal government becomes a dynamic agent of school reform, it will help bring us out of the downturn better off than when we went in.”

In a statement provided to Education Week after the speech, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he welcomed Mr. Gates’ remarks.

“For years, Bill and Melinda Gates have been leading education advocates, working with their foundation to highlight the urgent challenges our country faces,” Mr. Miller said. “Today Bill Gates hit the nail on the head with his proposals for strengthening our nation’s schools and competitiveness, including the need to focus much more sharply on effective teaching, boost state standards, increase college graduation rates, rebuild crumbling schools, and use data to build the world-class education system that our economy needs and our children deserve.”

In a Nov. 21 statement on its Web site, the Gates Foundation discussed how hard times were touching its own work.

“The financial crisis is affecting everyone, from our foundation to our partners,” Jeff Raikes, the chief executive officer, wrote. “We know that it has hit our grantees, and the people they’re trying to help, especially hard.”

He added: “We are planning to grow our payout in 2009 by about 10 percent. This is lower than previously planned, but represents the commitment of our co-chairs and leadership to our mission during a difficult time.” (Education Week receives funding from the foundation for the annual Diplomas Count report.)

A foundation spokesman declined to say what was previously planned, or what spending for education would be exactly in 2009.

But, in announcing the philanthropy’s retooled agenda in Seattle last month, foundation officials provided some projected spending levels for its secondary education agenda, including grants of up to $500 million over five years for research and data collection, and another $500 million for a handful of demonstration projects tied to teacher quality.

The foundation has spent about $2 billion to date on efforts to improve high schools and increase graduation rates.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Gates Urges Leaders To Support Education In Troubled Economy

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