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January 28, 2009 9:47 AM

Bill Gates on Charter Schools

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Writing in the Washington Post, Bill Gates sums up what he's learned after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $2 billion to help schools get better. He writes:

Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.

My wife was president of the PTA at one of the schools that received Gates money: Whitman Middle School in Seattle. They used some of the Gates money to pay teachers to stay after school and participate in meetings on how to reform the school. My wife complained hotly to me that several of these meetings were taken up by the demands of two of the teachers to be paid more than the others. Everybody else thought it unfair (especially my wife, a PTA rep being paid nothing) but the two held out and the rest agreed to pay them more in order to shut them up. And thus, Bill and Melinda Gates' money was spent paying people to argue how much of Bill and Melinda Gates' money they should be paid.

The Seattle Schools lost the Gates money a year or so later. With justification, I thought.

Anyway, now Bill tells us that much of the money was wasted. It's also interesting to note how he describes the money that wasn't wasted. Of the schools that made big academic gains, he writes:

Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.

This from a philanthropist in a state in which the voters rejected charter schools (2004: Referendum 55, Yes, 1,122,964; No, 1,572,203.) He writes:

We will continue to invest in replicating the school models that worked the best. Almost all of these schools are charter schools. Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed.

Is anyone listening?

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