Obama, Melinda Gates: Education boosters

President Obama drew Bill and Melinda Gates into his campaign for education reform and investment on Tuesday, appearing at a technology-focused Boston public academy the Microsoft chairman and his wife helped to start and offering it as an example for the nation.

At a time of scarce resources, Obama said, the U.S. should tighten its belt wherever possible but still put more money into advancing such a “21st century curriculum” across the country.

“There is no better economic policy than one that produces more graduates with the skills they need to succeed,” Obama said, speaking to students and teachers at the TechBoston Academy. “That’s why reforming education is the responsibility of every single American — every parent, every teacher, every business leader, every public official and, yes, every student.”

It’s the second act of a new White House strategy, in which Obama already has unveiled as a Republican spokesman former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Four days after Bush appeared alongside the president at a Miami high school, Melinda Gates joined Obama on Tuesday for a tour of TechBoston and a speech in its auditorium.


The clear target is Republican lawmakers who think Obama’s latest budget proposal doesn’t cut deeply enough and disagree with his plans to hike federal spending on certain programs, including education, without matching cuts somewhere else.

The challenge for Obama’s education message is breaking through the cacophony in the public debate right now, dominated as it is by trouble in the Middle East, gas prices, union protests and a looming government shutdown. Though he has declared March to be “Education Month,” other topics dominate the daily news cycle.

The problem is, Obama’s message is increasingly heard “through partisan ears,” says Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“When Republicans and fiscal conservatives hear ‘invest to win the future,’ they think ‘spend and tax’ and ‘federal control,’ ” Whitehurst said. “Those are not popular words in that quarter or probably among the public in general at this point in time.”

At the TechBoston Academy, Obama unveiled what will be a key component of his message during a month of travels — a direct appeal to business leaders for support.

“Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education,” Obama said. “We cannot cut back on the very investments that will help our economy grow.”

TechBoston was part of the president’s point. The school integrates technology throughout its curriculum and offers internships and challenging Advanced Placement courses to all students regardless of test-score history.

The pilot school is the pet project of the Gates Foundation and draws heavily on help from a range of companies including Cisco Systems, IBM, Microsoft, HP and Google.

The administration thinks its invest-in-education message will resonate with those leaders and that their support will help the president’s agenda.

“When we talk to business leaders, they tell us that this is really critical work for them,” said Melody Barnes, director of Obama’s domestic policy council. “For them, thinking out into the future, if we are better educating our children today, it means that their businesses are going to be more competitive tomorrow.”

Many Republicans support the idea of “turnaround” schools like the one Obama visited in Florida last week. They want to see schools do a better job of educating the workforce and turning out college-ready students.

But GOP leaders are worried about spending. Though the president’s $3.7-trillion budget blueprint would cut more than 200 federal programs next year, it would also make investments in education, transportation and research.

“If everything is a priority,” one Republican aide asked Tuesday, “are there any priorities?”

In particular, critics point to a new program that Obama highlighted Tuesday. He wants to devote $90 million to set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education to promote educational technology, which Republicans say is already too much like other programs already running.

“At a time when we need to focus on getting our fiscal house in order and streamlining the federal government’s role in education, spending more taxpayer dollars on a duplicative program isn’t a responsible choice,” said Colette Beyer, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

For her part, Melinda Gates didn’t fully endorse either approach to education reform. As she introduced the president, she gave credit for the success at pilot programs like TechBoston to the “flexibility” the teachers and administrators have to go around the rules that bind other public schools. In so doing, she articulated a principle important to many Republicans, one of fewer restrictions and more accountability.

Without explicitly calling for more education funding, Gates lauded Obama’s call to the country “to educate itself out of this recession.”

But Obama made the point crystal clear. Schools need reform, he said, but that’s not all that’s needed.

“It’s not either more money or more reform,” Obama said. “It’s … both more money and more reform.”