Gates Donates $30 Million to on Education Campaign (Update1)
By Matthew Keenan and William McQuillen
Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Bill Gates is spending $30 million on the U.S. presidential campaign for a cause, not a candidate. The world's richest man plans to make education the No. 1 domestic priority with voters.
The 52-year-old Microsoft Corp. chairman has poured $3.4 billion into school improvements and scholarships since 2000 through his Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, according to the foundation's records. Now the charity says it is providing half the money for Strong American Schools, a bipartisan group with a $60 million effort called ``Ed in '08.''
The Washington-based organization, led by former Democratic Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, wants the next president to rally support for learning standards, increased pay and training for teachers, and longer class days and school years. It says those ideas would improve access to high-quality education, boost economic vitality and reduce the number of U.S. high school dropouts from 1.2 million a year.
Ed in '08 has been ``a strong presence out there in the field in the key primary states, getting the grassroots going, getting online going, getting volunteers going,'' said Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager for Democrat John Edwards, whose policy aides have conferred with Strong American Schools officials. ``They've taken a very smart approach.''
The Gates-backed effort is nonpartisan by design, said Marc Lampkin, 43, the executive director of Strong American Schools and a deputy campaign director for Bush in 2000. Gates and Romer weren't available for comment. Lampkin said the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, a frequent Gates partner on education projects, is providing the other $30 million for the Strong American Schools' effort.
``The Gates name, the Gates brand, his commitment to philanthropy opens up lots of doors and avenues, and it really does, based on their enormous amount of effort they put into improving schools,'' Lampkin said in an interview today with Bloomberg radio.
Ed in '08 officials say they face an uphill fight in a year in which the war in Iraq, the economy and health care are issues with voters. A Dec. 11 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed only 1 percent of voters identified education as their overriding concern in the presidential campaign.
``It is very difficult for any special issue to break through, given how cluttered the terrain is,'' said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, who worked for Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid and now supports Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
Strong American Schools has 125 staffers and consultants working in four early-voting states, according to organizers. They've attended more than 675 forums, posted an 87-page so- called toolkit for reform on the Internet and met with advisers for the major candidates.
Among New Hampshire residents planning to vote in the Democratic primary on Jan. 8, education tied with the economy for second among domestic issues, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll. It was identified by 8 percent of respondents, compared with health care at 23 percent. In Iowa, which holds its caucuses today, 6 percent of Democrats made education their top concern, up from 3 percent in November.
The poll numbers rose as two Democratic candidates, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Clinton, began airing television ads on education in those states.
Ed in '08 plans a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, likely to begin in March, that will focus on contested states led by Ohio and Florida and target voting blocs including married women and Hispanics, said communications director Chad Kolton.
Twelve of 15 major candidates support at least part of its platform. The group doesn't identify the candidates because charitable organizations are prohibited by law from publicly supporting or opposing candidates for office.
Ed in 08's leaders say education has become a highly partisan issue in the wake of the No Child Left Behind law, a priority for then-candidate George W. Bush when he first ran for president in 2000.
The law, enacted in 2002, requires about 50 million public school students to be tested in reading and math and raises standards for new teachers. All of the major Democratic candidates have been critical of the program, and efforts in Congress to change it stalled last fall.
No Position on Law
While aspects of Strong American School's program resemble No Child Left Behind, the group doesn't take a stand on the law or any other federal legislation. It also isn't pushing for more federal spending on schools or for a government-mandated national curriculum.
Lampkin said Republicans like him and Democrats, including Romer, who served as Los Angeles school superintendent from 2001-2006, agree that schools are in such an imperiled state that it's necessary to ``actually work on an issue that transcends party politics.''
The goal is to prod the next president into rallying support from governors, mayors and local school superintendents, ``using the bully pulpit to drive American consciousness around this issue,'' Lampkin said. With ``the next president, we have an opportunity to begin that process.''
Strong American Schools has set up field offices in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as Nevada and South Carolina. The group enlisted rapper Kanye West to record a public-service announcement and this month rolled out another, featuring young people reciting statistics about failing schools.
The Gates foundation, formed in 2000, is the world's biggest charitable fund, with assets valued at $37.6 billion. The figure includes $3.4 billion contributed by Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Gates has ``a credibility that gives you the voice to actually challenge the politicians, to challenge the status quo,'' Lampkin said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Keenan in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org ; William McQuillen in Washington at email@example.com
Last Updated: January 3, 2008 14:20 EST