The New York Times
By: Sam Dillon
November 19, 2010
Bill Gates, the founder and former chairman of Microsoft, has made education-related philanthropy a major focus since stepping down from his day-to-day role in the company in 2008.
His new area of interest: helping solve schools' money problems. In a speech prepared for delivery Friday, Mr. Gates -- who is gaining considerable clout in education circles -- plans to urge the 50 state superintendents of education to take difficult steps to restructure the nation's public education budgets, which have come under severe pressure in the economic downturn.
He suggests they end teacher pay increases based on seniority and on master's degrees, which he says are unrelated to teachers' ability to raise student achievement. He also urges an end to efforts to reduce class sizes. Instead, he suggests rewarding the most effective teachers with higher pay for taking on larger classes or teaching in needy schools.
"Of course, restructuring pay systems is like kicking a beehive" -- but restructure them anyway, Mr. Gates plans to tell the superintendents in his talk to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which opens a convention in Louisville on Friday.
"Rebuild the budget based on excellence," Mr. Gates says.
Teachers' unions defend giving raises to teachers as they gain experience and higher education.
"We know that experience makes a difference in student achievement -- teachers get better," said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining at the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union. "And additional training, too, whether its a master's degree or some other way a teacher has improved her content knowledge, we think it ought to be compensated."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of Mr. Gates's speech: "He is proposing to change one of the things that parents count on -- small class sizes to differentiate instruction. There's a mountain of solid research and common sense showing smaller class sizes benefit students."
States and local school districts are headed toward what may be painful budget decisions because two years of recession have battered state and local tax revenues, and the $100 billion in stimulus money that has been pumped into public education since spring 2009 is running out.
New Jersey, for example, faces a $10 billion deficit, and Gov. Chris Christie has clashed with superintendents over his efforts to cap their pay.
In several other states including Ohio, which faces an $8 billion deficit, newly elected governors are scrutinizing school spending as part of a broad review.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered his own speech in Washington this week, titled "Bang for the Buck in Schooling," in which he made arguments similar to those of Mr. Gates.
School officials should be using this crisis to "leverage transformational change in the education system" rather than seeking to balance budgets through shorter school years, reduced bus routes or other short-term fixes, Mr. Duncan said.
Mr. Gates accepted an invitation to speak to the council, he said in an interview, because many of the key decisions in America's decentralized education system are made by state superintendents and local school boards.
"These are the leaders," he said.
Steven Paine, the West Virginia superintendent who is the council's president, said the group invited Mr. Gates because "he has a perspective that we need to consider."
"He's been fairly successful in the business arena," he added.
After reading an advance copy of Mr. Gates's speech, Mr. Paine said, "We all want to transform our education systems, but when you're falling off that funding cliff it's difficult to do."
In the speech, Mr. Gates says that improving student achievement is a central challenge, and that budget crises are making change necessary.
"You can't fund reforms without money," he says. "And there is no more money."
The only way out, he says, is by rethinking the way the nation's $500 billion annual expenditures on public schools is allocated. About $50 billion pays for seniority-based annual salary increases for teachers, he says. The nation spends an additional $9 billion annually to pay salary increases to teachers with master's degrees, he says.