Bill Gates, the world’s biggest-spending philanthropist, poured so much private money into pet education reform projects that he helped drive the public education policy agenda. His foundation funded the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, for one thing, and spent millions on other controversial school reforms that were supported by President Obama’s Education Department.
Now, it seems, Gates is looking ahead. On Dec. 13, 2016, he met with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan and had some kind words about him afterward. Really kind words, such as comparing him to John F. Kennedy.
Here’s what Gates told CNBC during an interview on “Squawk Box” broadcast the same day as the meeting with Trump:
“I had an opportunity to talk to him about innovation. A lot of his message has been about things where he sees things not as good as he’d like. But in the same way that President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that, I think that whether it’s education or stopping epidemics, other health breakthroughs, finishing polio, and in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that his administration is going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind. Of course, my whole career has been along those lines. And he was interested in listening to that. And I’m sure there will be further conversation.”
Transforming education through “innovation” is a Gates mantra, as expressed on the education homepage of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which lists it as one of three focuses, along with teaching and learning:
Our goal: to support innovation that can improve U.S. K-12 public schools and ensure that students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college.
And there’s this:
By focusing on the common goal of improving education through innovation — and by building on and sharing effective tools, strategies, and standards — educators, school leaders, and nonprofit partners across the country can transform U.S. public education.
As it turns out, the school reforms that Gates bankrolled over the past 15 or so years have never turned out quite as he had imagined. After spending at least $2 billion on various reforms — a small-schools initiative in New York, the creation of teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores, the Core, etc. — the foundation’s chief executive officer, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, wrote this in the 2016 annual letter:
We are firm believers that education is a bridge to opportunity in America. My colleague, Allan Golston, spoke passionately about this at a gathering of education experts last year. However, we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change.
As for the Common Core, she said:
Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers — but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.
A new administration, a new chance for Gates to try to work with a new Education Department, one that is likely to be led by Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire nominated by Trump. DeVos is a leader in the movement to privatize public education. How cozy will Gates get with the Trump administration? Stay tuned.