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What Can $1.7 Billion Do For U.S. Schools? Bill Gates Wants To Find Out

by Erin Canty

October 30, 2017
Bill and Melinda Gates. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Microsoft co-founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates revealed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will invest $1.7 billion in American schools over the next five years.

Gates announced the funding Oct. 19, while delivering the keynote address in Cleveland at the Council of the Great City Schools conference, one of the country's largest gatherings of urban educators and school officials. The investment will support projects in three areas of interest: public schools, “big bets,” and charter schools.

60% of the money will go to public schools to help develop new curricula and push for more rigorous data collection to closely track student grades, attendance, and achievement. This portion of the funds will also support local networks of schools that can work together to identify and solve problems unique to their region and student population. Gates cited groups like the CORE Districts in California, which is a network of the eight largest districts in the state, and Tenessee's LIFT Education, which is comprised of 12 urban and rural districts across the state.

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We believe this kind of approach — where groups of schools have the flexibility to propose the set of approaches they want — will lead to more impactful and durable systemic change that is attractive enough to be widely adopted by other schools,” Gates said in his address.

25% of the funding will prioritize what Gates calls “big bets.” This includes technological innovations for the classroom as well as funding research and development opportunities in psychology, neuroscience, and pedagogy.

The final 15% of the funds will go to high-performing charter schools to help improve outcomes for disabled children, particularly those with learning disabilities.

“This is a critical problem across the education sector, and we believe that charters have the flexibility to help the field solve this problem,” Gates said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began working in education in 2000 and has invested in projects and moonshot ideas with varying degrees of success.

Early on, the foundation invested in breaking large high schools into smaller ones, and while it was moderately successful, it proved to be an expensive, emotional, and highly political process. The foundation also financially backed Common Core standards and teacher evaluation processes, two controversial approaches to improving our education system. (Gates has since announced the foundation will no longer invest in the latter going forward.)

While Gates has good intentions, it remains to be seen if the foundation's $1.7 billion will be the jumpstart public schools need to improve outcomes for all students, particularly disabled students, students of color, and students from families with low incomes.

But one thing is for certain: These students and their futures are a more than worthy investment. 

Share image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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