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Billionaires Start $60 Million Schools Effort

Ohanian Comment: I've been issuing warnings about these Broad and Gates for years, and now they're putting their enormous wealth together--to get what they want. Those people who continue to operate under the delusion that the Democrats are going to tweak NCLB to benefit children, should sit up and take notice. They all want tougher tests, and many of them want national standards. Every teacher in America will be on script--or else.

Teachers and parents must stand up, speak out, and work against further corporatization of our schools.

We must build a movement of class conscious people who are willing to speak out. This means taking risks. We aren't just talking about school reform here. We are talking about our lives.

To quote Rich Gibson, "Nobody is going to save us but us."

Break the silence!

By David M. Herszenhorn

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

Experts on campaign spending said the project would rank as one of the most expensive single-issue initiatives ever in a presidential race, dwarfing, for example, the $22.4 million that the Swift Vets and P.O.W.s for Truth group spent against Senator John Kerry in 2004, and the $7.8 million spent on advocacy that year by AARP, the lobby for older Americans.

Under the slogan âEd in â08,â the project, called Strong American Schools, will include television and radio advertising in battleground states, an Internet-driven appeal for volunteers and a national network of operatives in both parties.

âI have reached the conclusion as has the Gates foundation, which has done good things also, that all weâre doing is incremental,â said Mr. Broad, the billionaire who founded SunAmerica Inc. and KB Home and who has long been a prodigious donor to Democrats. âIf we really want to get the job done, we have got to wake up the American people that we have got a real problem and we need real reform.â

Mr. Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, responding to questions by e-mail, wrote, âThe lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance.â

The project will not endorse candidates â indeed, it is illegal to do so as a charitable group â but will instead focus on three main areas: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

While the effort is shying away from some of the most polarizing topics in education, like vouchers, charter schools and racial integration, there is still room for it to spark vigorous debate. Advocating merit pay to reward high-quality teaching could force Democratic candidates to take a stand typically opposed by the teachers unions who are their strong supporters.

Pushing for stronger, more uniform standards, on the other hand, could force Republican candidates to discuss the potential merits of a national curriculum, a concept advocates for statesâ rights deeply oppose and one that President Bush has not embraced.

The initiative will be announced today in South Carolina, a day before the first Democratic debate. Similar publicity is scheduled for the first Republican debate early next month in Simi Valley, Calif.

Mr. Bush made education a major theme in 2000, paving the way for the No Child Left Behind law and its emphasis on testing. In 1992, President Bill Clinton proposed an array of education initiatives. But this year the issue is overshadowed by the war in Iraq, terrorism and health care.

âRight now itâs too low on the list of priorities for all the candidates,â Mr. Broad said, âand our job is to get it up on the list.â

The projectâs first print advertisement addresses the national focus head on, showing a student misspelling âA histery of Irakâ on a blackboard. âDebating Iraq is tough,â the advertisement says. âSpelling it shouldnât be. Americaâs schools are falling behind. Itâs a crisis that takes leadership to solve. So to all presidential candidates we say, âWhatâs your plan to fix our schools?â â

The effort will be directed by Roy Romer, the former Democratic governor of Colorado and the recent superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, and by Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist and former deputy campaign manager for Mr. Bush. It will be financed by the billionairesâ respective foundations, which they established with their wives, Melinda Gates and Edythe L. Broad. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is far larger, having disbursed $1.8 billion in education grants compared with $250 million by the Broad Foundation.

Mr. Broad has long been a major political donor, primarily to Democrats, and has been particularly well known as a friend and supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. He has contributed personally to Mrs. Clintonâs campaign as well as to other Democratic candidates.

Mr. Gates also gives handsomely, though to campaigns in both parties. The two men emphasized that their education advocacy was nonpartisan.

Supporters of the project also include Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska; Ken Mehlman, the former Republican Party chairman; and Louis V. Gerstner, the former chief executive of I.B.M. Several of the presidential candidates yesterday applauded the billionairesâ effort, but some bristled at the notion that they were not paying sufficient attention to education.

âI think 70 days into a campaign that has yet to choose any nominees for either party, to make a sweeping kind of analysis that they are not talking about education is probably a little premature,â said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a Republican. âIf anybody goes onto the campaign trail with Governor Romney, theyâll recognize that education is an important issue to him and to voters.â

A campaign spokesman for Hillary Clinton said Mrs. Clinton was pleased that the issue would get âmuch-needed attention.â

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Democratic presidential candidate who has proposed legislation calling for tougher and more uniform education standards, issued a statement praising the Strong American Schools effort. âI look forward to including elements of the Gates-Broad initiative in the current dialogue on how to improve our nationâs schools,â Mr. Dodd said.

Bill Hogan, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Integrity and director of the Buying of the President 2008 project, which is scrutinizing the influence of money in the campaign, said the new effort could prove remarkable in its spending level.

âIf we are talking about efforts in presidential campaigns to promote discussion or debate of an issue, there has been nothing like this,â Mr. Hogan said. âThis would be off the charts.

— David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times





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