Gates Foundation playing pivotal role in changes for education system

The high unemployment rate has provided an unexpected boon for the nation's public schools: legions of career-switchers eager to become teachers.
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010

TAMPA -- Across the country, public education is in the midst of a quiet revolution. States are embracing voluntary national standards for English and math, while schools are paying teachers based on student performance.

It's an agenda propelled in part by a flood of money from a billionaire prep-school graduate best known for his software empire: Bill Gates.

In the past 2 1/2 years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged more than $650 million to schools, public agencies and other groups that buy into its main education priorities.

The largest awards are powering experiments in teacher evaluation and performance pay. The Pittsburgh school district landed $40 million, Los Angeles charter schools $60 million and the Memphis schools $90 million. The Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, won the biggest grant: $100 million. That has set the nation's eighth-largest school system on a quest to reshape its 15,000-member teaching corps by rewarding student achievement instead of seniority.

The focus on teaching marks a significant shift for the foundation. In the past decade, it spent $2 billion to improve high schools, with a major emphasis on creating smaller schools. But Bill Gates said Saturday that new approaches are needed because the pace of improvement has been too slow. In many cities, a third or more of students fail to graduate from high school on time. Those who earn a diploma are often ill equipped for college.

"It's disappointing to everyone who looks at the facts," Gates told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. He said he is willing to do whatever it takes to help raise achievement. "There's a risk that we might not succeed," Gates said, "but I can tell you we'll keep trying."

It is unclear whether philanthropy -- even a charity led by one of the world's richest men -- can find large-scale solutions to problems that have beset schools for generations. But what is certain is that Gates grants have become a leading currency for a particular kind of education reform. That agenda has won praise from the Obama administration and others, while prompting questions from some about the foundation's pervasive presence and its emphasis on performance measures.

Data the foundation provided to The Post show the most comprehensive portrait of its educational ambitions over the past two years.

Since January 2008, more than 250 Gates grants have targeted causes such as charter schools, testing research, data systems, science and math education and common academic standards.

Gates grants are propelling initiatives that otherwise might be put on hold because of tight budgets. The Prince George's County schools and the D.C. Public Education Fund, which supports the city school system, won separate $2.5 million grants for teacher evaluation and training.

Overall government spending on K-12 education, estimated at more than $500 billion a year, dwarfs what the foundation gives. But the Seattle-based charity, with a $35 billion endowment, towers over others in the field. It gives nearly four times as much annually to elementary and secondary education as the second-biggest player, the Walton Family Foundation.

"It has influence everywhere," said Tom Loveless, an education analyst at the Brookings Institution, "in absolutely every branch of education, whether you're talking about the federal, state or local levels of government, schools, the press, politicians or think tanks. Their motives could be 100 percent pure. But any time you have one big player that is influencing all of these groups, it is cause for concern."

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