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Bill Gates: Charters Should Lead Innovation

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The nation's charter schools should use their freedoms to boldly innovate and create promising strategies and practices that can be used by all schools, Bill Gates said to an audience of thousands of charter school operators and supporters this morning.

Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives more funding to education than any other philanthropy in the nation.

[Disclosure: The Gates Foundation provides funding to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.]

He expanded on his remarks and answered questions about a few more subjects in an interview with me after his public remarks.

"The fact is the majority of children in the country are attending schools that don't work for them. So it's imperative that we take the risk to make change," Gates said to the audience at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago. "Not just small change at the margin, but dramatic changes that are centered around the student. I believe the seeds of that new approach are being sown at those [high-performing charter] schools."

He called for the elimination of state caps on charter schools, more equitable public funding for charters and better partnerships with school districts. The foundation this fall will announce a series of compacts between charters and district partners, he said.

Gates challenged charter school authorizers and managers to make sure charters are high-performing and to close those that don't meet the bar after giving them a chance to improve.

"I really think that charters have the potential to revolutionize the way students are educated. But to deliver on this promise, it's important that the movement do even more to hold itself accountable for low-performing charters," he said.

"The deal that allowed for the autonomy has to be a real deal," Gates continued. "The freedom to perform in new ways means that if you don't perform, things are shut down after you are given a chance."

In a one-on-one interview with Education Week after his speech, Gates said he believes charters have largely lived up to their promise of creating innovative, high-quality education for students, but he wants to see more risk taking, especially with creating new evaluation structures for teachers and using technology to make sure students have a firm grasp of what content they have and have not mastered.

"The movement has to keep trying new things," he said.

One concern in making better use of technology is making sure access exists not just in urban and suburban areas, but also in rural areas. The man who helped put personal computing on the map said he believes the digital divide is narrowing.

"It is fair to say with the access to the technology we have, we can't totally flip
over to where we don't buy textbooks anymore overnight," Gates said. "But prices [of technology] are going down, and public availability of the Internet is going up."

The Great Recession has hit state and local education budgets hard, making investments in technology more difficult, but Gates, noting the significant increase in school spending and personnel over the past three decades, said he believes schools can still make progress.

"I don't think it's impossible to do a good job, even as we deal with this reality."

In fact, he said, charter schools, which often have far less funding than traditional public schools and struggle at times to find facilities, have demonstrated that good results can be attained, even with fewer dollars. (Philanthropic funding has flowed in to some of the top charter operators to help make up the gap.)

Some education policy observers have viewed with suspicion the number of former Gates Foundation employees who have gone on to work at top levels in U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's cabinet and the support the foundation has given to Obama administration initiatives, including giving money to states to help shape their Race to the Top applications.

Gates dismissed the notion his foundation has outsized influence on the administration's agenda.

"Everyone's got the same goal in mind, which is to improve the schools," he said. "There is no agenda. If the status quo were satisfactory, we wouldn't need to be involved at all."

Besides, Gates noted, the country is far from being in agreement on how to improve public education.

"Arne's got a lot of different strategies. Some overlap [with the foundation's]. Some are different," he said. "I wish the world had one [education] agenda it knew would work and be embraced by teachers."

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