Bill Gates, the nation’s superintendent of schools

DIANE RAVITCH is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of education at New York University.

WARREN Buffett’s gift of $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will double the foundation’s assets, bringing it to more than $60 billion, and will increase its annual giving to nearly $3 billion.

Never before has an individual given such a large amount of money to someone else’s foundation. Never before has a private foundation had assets of this dimension. Never before has any individual or foundation had so much power to direct the course of American education, which is one of the primary interests of the Gates Foundation. Educators are waiting with bated breath to see which direction this multibillion-dollar behemoth will take.

When judged by their influence on education, foundations have a decidedly mixed record. The most successful American philanthropists by far were Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald. Carnegie, the steel magnate, used his foundation to build 2,500 free public libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of which are in the United States, and his name became a blessing to readers across the nation.

Rosenwald, who headed Sears, Roebuck & Co. in the early 1900s, directed his foundation to underwrite the construction of more than 5,000 schools in poor, rural, mainly African American districts in 15 Southern states, as well as to endow Tuskegee, Howard, Fisk, Atlanta and Dillard universities, which were (and are) predominantly black. Rosenwald’s munificence saved a generation of black students.


At the other extreme, the most spectacular blunder by a foundation was the intervention of the Ford Foundation in the politics of New York City’s public schools in the late 1960s. In a struggle for control of the school system between minority activists and the teachers union, the foundation funded the activists. Ford-sponsored community groups ousted union teachers from their schools, and the union responded by striking and closing down the schools for two months in the fall of 1968.

The ugly confrontation, accompanied by charges and countercharges of racism and anti-Semitism, poisoned black-Jewish relations in New York City for three decades. The Legislature defused the crisis by decentralizing the 1-million-pupil school district into 32 community districts, an arrangement that satisfied few people but remained in place until 2002, when the Legislature gave control of the school system to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

How will the Gates Foundation do? Thus far, it has invested $1 billion to persuade school districts to break up large high schools into small schools of 500 or fewer students. About 1,500 small high schools have been created with the foundation’s largesse. Last year, Bill Gates told the National Governors Assn. that “America’s high schools are obsolete.” Our high schools, he said, “cannot teach our kids what they need to know today,” especially the advanced skills in math, science and technology required in the modern workplace.

It is certainly true that many American high schools are too large, especially in urban areas, where some enroll more than 2,000 adolescents and many students get lost in the crowd.


However, the Gates Foundation’s plan to promote small high schools has also run into unexpected obstacles.

The foundation aims to promote higher standards and closer relationships between students and teachers, and indeed, according to the foundation’s own evaluations, students in the new mini-schools have better relationships with teachers, do somewhat better in English and have better graduation rates than those in large schools.

However, the same evaluations also show that students in the small schools are learning significantly less math than their peers in the big schools.

Some districts that took Gates’ money to downsize their schools are now backtracking. The Denver school district, a pioneer recipient of Gates funding, got $1 million to convert its 1,100-student Manual High School into three mini-schools in 2001. As a consequence, electives were cut back, as were advanced placement courses, foreign language courses, choir, debate and athletic teams. As college-bound students, athletes and other disgruntled pupils transferred out, enrollments at the Manual mini-schools plunged by nearly 50%, along with student achievement and the graduation rate. Denver closed the small schools this year, and Manual High School is being reconsolidated.


In light of its experiences, the Gates Foundation seems chastened and apparently has recognized that curriculum (what students are taught) and instruction (the quality of teachers) may be no less important than school size. Perhaps, with its deep expertise in technology, the foundation will think about investing in the development of innovative, interactive software to transform the teaching of mathematics and science in the nation’s classrooms, from kindergarten through grade 12. And, by establishing an endowment fund, the foundation could safeguard the future of urban Catholic schools, which have been a gateway to the middle class for so many poor and working-class children.

With the ability to hand out more than $1 billion or more every year to U.S. educators without any external review, the Gates Foundation looms larger in the eyes of school leaders than even the U.S. Department of Education, which, by comparison, has only about $20 million in truly discretionary funds. The department may have sticks, but the foundation has almost all the carrots.

In light of the size of the foundation’s endowment, Bill Gates is now the nation’s superintendent of schools. He can support whatever he wants, based on any theory or philosophy that appeals to him. We must all watch for signs and portents to decipher what lies in store for American education.