School & District Management

Summit Underscores Gates Foundation’s Emergence as Player

By Caroline Hendrie — March 08, 2005 6 min read
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As its headliner role at the national summit on high schools here highlighted, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has moved beyond a focus on individual schools and entered the fray of national politics and policy.

Bill Gates, the software magnate whose Seattle-based foundation has become education philanthropy’s big boy on the block, delivered a keynote address that set the stage for the two-day affair. The Microsoft Corp. chairman met with national reporters and fielded questions on education policy issues. And he matched his words with a pledge of $15 million aimed squarely at reshaping state-level policies.

Indeed, the sheer fact that the Feb. 26-27 gathering of 45 governors focused on redesigning America’s high schools—a cause the foundation has heavily invested in over the past five years—was a sign not only of the philanthropy’s growing interest in influencing policy, but also its growing success at doing so, many observers say.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates speaks at a summit on high schools.

“Gates started out with this kind of inside-the-schoolhouse strategy, and I think what they’ve realized is that trying to build these new institutions in the same old system is going to be a Sisyphean task,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Convinced that the largeness and impersonality of many high schools have been barriers to student success, the Gates Foundation has committed about $1 billion to directly and indirectly support the start-up of small high schools or the restructuring of existing ones into smaller units. The foundation stresses that smallness is not an end in itself, but a tool for delivering the “three R’s” of a rigorous curriculum, relevance to students’ lives, and strong relationships among students, teachers, and families.

Role of Government

To date, the money has gone mostly to nonprofit organizations working to start or restructure schools in specific cities or to scale up promising school models. The foundation has generally avoided direct grants to school districts or states. (“High Schools Nationwide Paring Down,” June 16, 2004.)

Yet the foundation’s high-profile involvement in the summit did not come out of the blue. Well aware that philanthropy represents only a small slice of spending on K-12 education nationwide, the foundation has been focusing increasing attention on persuading policymakers of the need for systemic change.

“Even our billion dollars is just a tiny, tiny thing in the scope of the resources that this nation must spend on education,” Mr. Gates said in an interview with a half-dozen reporters during the summit. “The bulk of the money by far will always come from government.”

That Mr. Gates is hoping to shift the direction of all that government spending couldn’t be clearer. As part of a broad exhortation to “stop rationing education in America,” he told the governors that redesigning a system that is now programmed, in his view, to leave large numbers of young people unprepared for college, work, or citizenship is a moral and economic imperative.

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“The success of individual schools is not an answer to this crisis,” he said in his keynote address. “We have to be able to make systems of schools work for all students.”

Looking for Leverage

Hoping to spur such change, the Gates Foundation joined five other philanthropies at the summit to announce a $42 million program, to be run by the National Governors Association, that will award competitive grants to support policies aimed at improving high school graduation rates and college readiness.

Specific criteria for those grants have yet to be laid out, but they are expected to track closely with a list of policy goals for states in the “action agenda” that the NGA and Achieve Inc., the summit’s sponsors, released in advance of the gathering.

The decision to become the lead funder of the new grants program reflects the acceleration of a trend that has been under way at the Gates Foundation for several years, officials there and outside analysts agree.

“This is not a new area of emphasis for us,” said Tom Vander Ark, the foundation’s executive director of education. Still, he added, “it would be fair to say that we’ve done an increasing amount of grantmaking focused on state policy in each of the last five years.”

Mr. Vander Ark said such grants have gone for research, policy development, and advocacy in support of four areas that the foundation says effective systems of schools need to have: college-ready standards, strong accountability, adequate and flexible funding, and equitable school choice.

In some of the 30 cities where it

is supporting schools, the foundation has been stepping up efforts to spur systemic change. Among the most noteworthy initiatives are those in New York City and Oakland, Calif.

“They’ve clearly made a decision that they want to become more influential in the world of policy,” said Bruno V. Manno, the senior associate for education for the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

That being the case, the foundation’s positions on issues—and the policy views of Mr. Gates—are likely to carry more weight, some observers say.

“Given that Gates controls this enormous pot of discretionary money, people are going to want to know how Bill Gates feels on all these different questions, and it’s going to matter,” Mr. Hess said.

‘Sticking to This Thing’

During the session with reporters, Mr. Gates fielded questions both on the foundation and its strategies and on broader topics, ranging from vouchers and the No Child Left Behind Act to the link between funding and educational quality.

Mr. Gates said the foundation was in no way backing off its position that small high schools—those with 500 students or fewer—are the most promising “tool” for making sure that all students, and particularly those who are disadvantaged, graduate ready for college and work.

“We’re sticking to this thing,” he said. “But we’re always open-minded to any model that can drive the final outcome.”

Mr. Gates also said he didn’t expect the governors to pick up the small-schools banner, as long as they stood for needed institutional reforms.

“The key thing for the governors to say is that we’re not doing what we should for these students, and they’re willing to make the hard decisions to change that,” he said. “We’re not asking them, here’s a bumper sticker that says ‘small schools’ on it or something like that.”

On the issue of school funding, he said, “there are districts that aren’t getting enough money,” but “money’s not the central issue.” Evidence for that comes, he said, from high schools that are graduating large numbers of college-ready students on average budgets.

He said he considered the Bush administration’s focus on high schools “great,” but largely demurred when asked whether he thought new federal legislation in that area was necessary.

When it comes to rating the nation’s overall commitment to graduating all students ready for college and work, Mr. Gates said, “I wouldn’t give us a passing grade.” Still, he said he was not on the same page as those who see public funding for private schooling as a solution.

“I wouldn’t have chosen to give over a billion to the high school program if I wasn’t optimistic about the potential of change,” he said. “Our partners are willing to shake things up a bit as they move forward doing these things, but it’s within the framework that if you really care about the opportunity we create in this nation, you’ve got to engage in the public education system.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Summit Underscores Gates Foundation’s Emergence as Player

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