WASHINGTON – The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been the biggest player by far in the school reform movement, spending around $200 million a year on grants to elementary and secondary education.
Now the foundation is taking unprecedented steps to influence education policy, spending millions to influence how the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools.
President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to appropriate the money as part of the economic stimulus so he could try new ideas to fix an education system that most agree is failing. The foundation is offering $250,000 apiece to help states apply, so long as they agree with the foundation’s approach.
Obama and the Gates Foundation share some goals that not everyone embraces: paying teachers based on student test scores, among other measures of achievement; charter schools that operate independently of local school boards; and a set of academic standards adopted by every state.
Some argue that a private foundation like Gates shouldn’t partner with the government.
“When you team up with the government, you compromise your ability to be critical of the government, and sometimes you compromise your ability to do controversial and maybe unpopular things with your money,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. The institute is among the many that have received money from the Gates Foundation.
Another concern is that as a private foundation, Gates doesn’t have to disclose the details of its spending like the government does.
The big teachers unions dispute some of the goals shared by Obama and the foundation. They say student achievement is more than a score on a standardized test and it’s a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan welcomes the foundation’s involvement.
“The more all of us are in the game of reform, the more all of us are pushing for dramatic improvement, the better,” Duncan said.
Bill Gates said his foundation is not the government’s partner in the new grant program, which the government has called the “Race to the Top.”
“It’s no secret the U.S. education system is failing,” Gates said. “We’re doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There’s no group-think.”
The foundation’s rising profile comes as the recession has gutted state and local budgets, which spend more money on education than anything else. Many states and districts can’t keep all their teachers on the payroll, let alone spend money on a high-stakes application for federal money that includes some 44 pages of rules.
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