Back to School for the Billionaires

Article excerpt

Byline: Rita Beamish Center for Public Integrity; With Laura M. Colarusso

They hoped their cash could transform failing classrooms. They were wrong. NEWSWEEK investigates what their money bought.

The richest man in America stepped to the podium and declared war on the nation's school systems. High schools had become "obsolete" and were "limiting--even ruining--the lives of millions of Americans every year." The situation had become "almost shameful." Bill Gates, prep-school grad and college dropout, had come before the National Governors Association seeking converts to his plan to do something about it--a plan he would back with $2 billion of his own cash.

Gates's speech, in February 2005, was a signature moment in what has become a decade-long campaign to improve test scores and graduation rates, waged by a loose alliance of wealthy CEOs who arrived with no particular background in education policy--a fact that has led critics to dismiss them as "the billionaire boys' club." Their bets on poor urban schools have been as big as their egos and their bank accounts. Microsoft chairman Gates, computer magnate Michael Dell, investor Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Walmart fame have collectively poured some $4.4 billion into school reform in the past decade through their private foundations.

Has this big money made the big impact that they--as well as teachers, administrators, parents, and students--hoped for? In the first-of-its-kind analysis of the billionaires' efforts, NEWSWEEK and the Center for Public Integrity crunched the numbers on graduation rates and test scores in 10 major urban districts--from New York City to Oakland--which got windfalls from these four top philanthropists.

The results, though mixed, are dispiriting proof that money alone can't repair the desperate state of urban education. For all the millions spent on reforms, nine of the 10 school districts studied substantially trailed their state's proficiency and graduation rates--often by 10 points or more. That's not to say that the urban districts didn't make gains.

The good news is many did improve and at a rate faster than their states 60 percent of the time--proof that the billionaires made some solid bets. But those spikes up weren't enough to erase the deep gulf between poor, inner-city schools, where the big givers focused, and their suburban and rural counterparts.

"A lot of things we do don't work out," admitted Broad, a product of Detroit public schools and Michigan State who made a fortune in home building and financial services. "But we can take the criticism."

The bottom line? The billionaires aspired to A-plus impact and came away with B-minus to C-minus results, according to the NEWSWEEK/CPI investigation, which was based on specially commissioned data and internal numbers shared by the philanthropists' foundations.

Despite the money, graduation rates in Oakland actually fell by 6 percentage points--though less than the rest of California's schools, which fell by 9 points. In Houston, graduation rates dropped about 6 points, while the remainder of Texas fell only 2. Graduation rates in New York City, on the other hand, while still trailing state averages significantly, improved markedly--up 18 points, compared with the state's 10-point rise. Washington, D.C.'s graduation rates dropped slightly, while students' math and reading proficiency generally improved (not being part of a state, its reading and math performance was measured against the district's independent charter schools). The city's education achievements, which have helped fuel a national debate over education reform captured in the hit documentary Waiting for Superman, have lately come under investigation amid suspicions of cheating (a charge the city's recently resigned schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, denies).

Oakland more often than not was improving faster than the rest of California, but still fared poorly at the high-school level, where reading scores trailed the rest of the state's average by 18 percentage points in 2010. …