Education Funding

Gates Learns to Think Big

October 10, 2006 12 min read
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When it comes to reshaping the American high school, few names, if any, come to mind more immediately these days than that of Bill Gates.

The philanthropy that the Microsoft Corp. software magnate co-chairs with his wife, Melinda, has put the issue on the national agenda like never before, with a commitment of more than $1.3 billion this decade toward the foundation’s agenda for improving high schools. Mr. Gates bluntly declared the American high school “obsolete” in a high-profile speech to the nation’s governors last year, and took that message to a nationwide television audience last spring on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

But it’s not simply a matter of money and fame. Increasingly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become strategic about expanding its reach. It now touches on virtually all the key levers in K-12 education, from schools and districts to states and even the federal government. And the foundation is underwriting research and backing groups deeply involved in policy and advocacy work.

“I think they have moved the issue 20 years in about five,” said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group dedicated to improving high schools. Like most of those interviewed for this story, Mr. Wise, a former governor of West Virginia, presides over an organization that has received Gates money, as has Editorial Projects in Education, the parent organization of Education Week.

Gates Grantees

The Big 10

1. NewSchools Venture Fund (San Francisco):
$57.09 million

2. Communities Foundation of Texas*(Dallas):
$57.05 million

3. New Visions for Public Schools* (New York City):
$52.33 million

4. KnowledgeWorks Foundation* (Cincinnati):
$41.18 million

5. Jobs for the Future Inc.*(Boston):
$37.62 million

6. College Board (New York City):
$30.61 million

7. Chicago Public Schools (Chicago):
$28.18 million

8. Alliance for Education* (Seattle):
$26.43 million

9. Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools* (Oakland, Calif.):
$26.12 million

10. Council of Chief State School Officers (Washington):
$25.48 million

Note: Grantees marked with an asterisk work in close collaboration with school systems, and in some cases states, to create new, district-run schools or redesigned high schools. Figures are for giving since 2000.

SOURCES: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Education Week

“They have been able to cover the waterfront,” he said.

The Seattle-based foundation is shaking off the “small schools” label for which it is perhaps best known. It still seeds plenty of small schools, but Gates officials are increasingly settling on a broader set of strategies with the mission of helping all students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.

The most notable funding shift appears to be the amount dedicated to what the foundation calls advocacy work. In 2002, Gates committed about $276,000 to that category. By 2005, it had skyrocketed to nearly $57 million, about one-fourth of its giving.

Gates’ advocacy giving ranges from supporting the Education Trust and the National Governors Association to donating to community-based groups.

Another emerging focus is supporting districtwide reform efforts at the high school level.

“The initial work was sort of very squarely focused on small schools,” said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that pushes for a strong academic education for disadvantaged students. “What I particularly like about the folks at Gates is they’ve been brutally honest with both themselves and very public about what didn’t come out of that. … [They] clearly understood that schools exist in the context of districts, and districts in the context of states, and they had to pay more attention to that.”

‘Some Pretty Radical Stuff’

In 2005, the Gates Foundation committed $219 million for its high school work, much of that for multiyear grants, and actually paid out $226 million. The foundation’s endowment, as of the end of August, was approximately $32 billion, making it the world’s wealthiest private foundation. Its biggest area of spending is on world health issues.

National Groups Gain Favor

The Gates Foundation is supporting national organizations engaged in education research, policy, and advocacy work. The giving includes a grant to the National Governors Association that flows mainly to states; support for efforts to build public awareness and backing for charter schools; and general operating support for some grantees.The grants are often made in partnership with other philanthropies.

Achieve Inc.:
$8.84 million

Alliance for Excellent Education:
$3.06 million

Center on Education Policy:

Council of Chief State School Officers:
$25.48 million*

Education Sector:
(through NewSchools Venture Fund)

Education Trust and Education Trust West:
$5.80 million**

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

National Association of Secondary School Principals:
$2.10 million

National Association of State Boards of Education:

National Conference of State Legislatures:

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices:
$21.23 million

Progressive Policy Institute:

Thomas B. Fordham Institute:

*The vast majority of the money supports the Schoolmatters data project, in partnership with other organizations.
**Excludes certain grants, as the money was intended for another group.
***Excludes a grant explicitly for work as a charter school sponsor in Ohio.

SOURCES: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Education Week

The education policy agenda the foundation is now pursuing with its grants focuses on several areas, with an emphasis on promoting state and district standards, assessments, and accountability measures. It’s especially targeting improvements that prepare poor and minority students for success in college and later life.

The foundation promotes having accurate and timely assessment data to measure progress. It says districts should have an aligned system of rigorous curriculum and instruction, and provide effective supports and interventions for struggling schools and districts. At the same time, it supports having a variety of high-quality school options, with a robust sector of largely autonomous schools such as charters.

Every student, it says, should have the option to take a college-entry or -placement test and earn college credit while still in high school.

“Although it has some deep roots, there’s some pretty radical stuff in there,” Craig D. Jerald, a Washington-based education consultant, said of the agenda. “High schools have been stratifying mechanisms for so long. Saying that all kids should be placed in the college-prep track represents a big change.”

Foundation officials say they’ve learned some important lessons from their previous work. The experience from early grantmaking in high schools has shown that starting new small schools is more promising than breaking up big schools into small units, said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education initiatives at the Gates Foundation. And when opening schools, he said, the key is to use a well-defined school design with close management control. (See table below: “An Evolving Approach.” )

Another lesson, the foundation has said, is that school-level change cannot be sustained without buy-in and support from districts. And then there’s the foundation’s growing recognition of the need to play a role in the policy arena.

“We’re working up the chain,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “State and federal policy is clearly of increasing importance, and has been and will be a focus for us.”

An obvious area of interest at the federal level is the No Child Left Behind Act, which has done much to drive states toward a greater focus on aligned standards, assessments, and accountability systems. But the law’s main targets are the elementary and middle grades.

An Evolving Approach

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From 2000 - 2003... 2004 - 2006
  • • Focused on school-level improvements, especially new and small schools
  • • Continues investments in quality school improvement models, with increased focus on reforms that directly affect the classroom, (e.g., rigorous curriculum)
  • • Sponsors district-level system change to support school-level change
  • • Supports state capacity-building to improve low-performing schools and districts
Lessons Learned
  • • Effective school improvement models must have a clear goal and clearly articulated design principles
  • • Structural changes will not lead to changes in teaching and learning without investments that are linked to activities that directly affect the classroom
  • • Sustained school-level change requires district support and the right systems
  • • Limited advocacy to communications related to specific grants to elevate awareness of the challenges facing high schools among a broader audience
  • • Invests in advocacy organizations nationally and in selected states in support of policies aimed at improving high school student outcomes
Lessons Learned
  • • State policy is an important entry point to systemic change and is a means to amplify impact of school and district-focused investments
  • • Made grants to school developers
  • • Continues commitment to replicating national school-level networks, focusing investments on “tight/tight” models and providing businessplanning assistance to support model development
Lessons Learned
  • • School models with well-defined design and close management control (“tight/tight” models) often produce better student results and can be replicated with greater fidelity

SOURCE: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“We think there’s the opportunity for the federal government through the [law’s] reauthorization to fully embrace the college- and work-ready agenda,” Mr. Vander Ark said.

There are limits, however, to what role the foundation can play, Gates officials emphasize.

“We are prohibited as a private foundation from lobbying,” said Stefanie Sanford, who oversees the foundation’s National Initiatives effort from an office just blocks from the White House. “We can’t say, ‘Here’s what ought to go in the No Child Left Behind Act,’ then go to the Hill and do that.”

But Ms. Sanford said she does meet with lawmakers and their staffs to share lessons from the Gates work.

Gates also backs organizations that play a more direct role in research and advocacy work on public policy at the federal and state levels, such as the Education Trust, whose work has been influential on Capitol Hill. In April, Gates provided the group with a $2.2 million grant for general operating support.

In another example, Gates gave a $1.4 million grant last year to help the Aspen Institute create a bipartisan commission to study the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind law, which is due for reauthorization next year.

The philanthropy, moreover, is eyeing an ambitious new partnership with the U.S. Department of Education on school data, building on the work of Schoolmatters, a public-private effort launched last year that Gates has jointly funded with the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. The idea, which Gates officials emphasized was still in the exploratory phase, is to design a project to make publicly available a “repository for data” that would be considered “clean and reliable,” Ms. Sanford said.

From Commitment to Policy

Two key examples of the Gates Foundation’s growing interest in state policy are its work through the NGA and Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes raising academic standards and student achievement.

It committed nearly $20 million last year to the governors’ association for grants to help states develop and implement comprehensive plans for high school redesign, and to increase rates of high school graduation and college readiness. It’s also been a major donor for the American Diploma Project, an initiative led by Achieve that now works with some 25 states to help align high school standards, assessments, graduation requirements, and data and accountability systems with the demands of college and the workplace.

Mr. Vander Ark says that as a result of those two projects, about 35 states have made a commitment to the college- and work-ready agenda.

Where the Money Goes

The Gates Foundation estimates total giving for all of its high-school-related work at more than $1.3 billion.
Below are estimates of support in certain categories since 2000.

*Click image to see full chart.

Click to enlarge: Where the Money Goes

Advocacy Spending Jumps
The figures shown reflect dollars committed, as opposed to dollars paid out.

*Click image to see full chart.

Click to enlarge: Advocacy Spending Jumps

SOURCE: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Education Week

“The key now will be to help those states move from commitment to policy, and from policy to practice,” he said. “That will be central to the work that we do in the next three years.”

At the district level, the foundation has close relationships with several big urban school systems. Much of that work has tended to focus on the creation of small schools or the conversion of large high schools into smaller units. Now, the foundation is also starting to seed district-level changes.

“Beginning in earnest in 2004, our strategy focused more attention on school districts as a unit of change,” Mr. Vander Ark said.

Gates recently provided planning grants to districts in some cities, including Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York City; and Portland, Ore., for broad-based high school improvement efforts.

In Chicago, the planning grant was followed up last spring with $21 million to help the district overhaul curriculum and instruction in high schools. The idea, Mr. Vander Ark said, is to build an aligned instructional system with a core curriculum and strong supports for secondary teachers and students. At the same time, Gates is helping to foster an “open sector” in education, Mr. Vander Ark said, with other options for students, such as charter schools.

“I think it’s fair to say, in every city we’ve worked, we work inside and outside the public school system,” he said. “We work with the school district, we work with charter operators—we even have some private schools in our portfolio.”

The foundation estimates total giving for its Chicago work, for example, at $66 million.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 426,000-student Chicago system, says the Gates assistance has been critical, both in sheer dollars and what he calls “intellectual capital.”

“It really is a partnership,” Mr. Duncan said. “They challenge my thinking and they push.” He added, “This is flexible money. … When you’re just trying to literally balance the budget, that doesn’t give you room to think differently, think big.”

Future Plans

In the end, experts in education policy say, there are two ways of looking at the amount of Gates money. On the one hand, it’s a drop in the bucket of K-12 spending, which totaled about $536 billion at the federal, state, and local levels in 2004-05, according to the U.S. Department of Education. On the other, so much public money is tied up in fixed expenses, such as teacher salaries and facilities, that the private money can make a big difference.

The philanthropy’s coffers will expand considerably, thanks to the announcement this past summer by the investor Warren E. Buffett that he will give it some $30 billion of his own fortune. By 2009, that will roughly double annual Gates giving. But the influx won’t necessarily change much about education spending.

“Most of the growth in U.S. giving will come in areas that are complementary to our education work,” said Mr. Vander Ark. That may include early learning, after-school programs, and housing, he said, though final decisions have not been made.

“We already account for about a quarter of K-12 philanthropy in America,” he said, “and more than that would be quite disruptive to the field, and could really begin to displace public and private investments in some areas.”

Some education leaders worry that the Gates Foundation may already have too much influence.

“We have had a lot of discussions about the role of philanthropy,” said Brita Butler-Wall, the president of the school board for the 46,000-student Seattle district. Gates provided $26 million for the district’s work in 2000, one of its biggest early grants.

“I don’t understand if the Gates Foundation sees itself as trying to support districts or lead districts,” Ms. Butler-Wall said. “No one was elected by the Gates Foundation to run schools.”

But Bryan C. Hassel, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based education expert, argues that the foundation has filled a vital space when it comes to high schools.

“There’s a huge role for philanthropy in promoting experimentation and research, so we can learn how to solve these problems,” he said. “They’ve played exactly that role. ... The mixed results of that are completely to be expected, because that’s what you get when you experiment.”

In any case, the foundation’s pursuit of broad influence should come as no surprise, said Chester E. Finn Jr., who heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, a research and advocacy group that does a small amount of grantmaking in Ohio.

“Should a large, rich private foundation be attempting to change the minds of public officials is a legitimate question,” he said. “But every large foundation … in my memory has been doing precisely that.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Gates Learns to Think Big


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