Who will get Buffet's billions?

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Donation of pound;17 billion could result in philanthropy bonanza and re-invent schooling in US. Stephen Phillips reports.

United States

Warren Buffet's pound;17 billion gift to the Gates Foundation charity should produce a massive windfall for schools in America and, potentially, across the world, says an expert.

The billionaire investor announced last week that he was giving away more than 70 per cent of his fortune to the charity founded by the only person in the world richer than he is, Bill Gates, That will double the value of what is already the world's biggest philanthropic fund, which in just a few years has risen to become easily the biggest private benefactor of US state schools, and is helping set the agenda for American education reform.

Since 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pumped more than $1 billion into US public education. Last week's announcement came just days after Mr Gates revealed he would relinquish his job at Microsoft in 2008 to devote himself full-time to the foundation.

Mr Gates said Mr Buffet's gift would be used to "deepen" and "accelerate"

funding of the foundation's two causes, health and education.

Paul Hill, professor of public affairs and director of the centre on reinventing public education at Washington university, said he expects the foundation to use the cash to branch into international education initiatives, trying to eliminate barriers to school, particularly for girls, in developing countries.

To date, it has used its financial clout to push its vision of intimate, academically-themed "small schools" as a blueprint for "reinventing" US secondary education. It believes that students are less likely to fall through the cracks in schools that have 401 pupils or fewer.

Recent grants have included $125m to bankroll 175 such schools in New York; $67m to "redesign" 16 schools and create 27 small schools as part of "city-wide high-school reform" in Chicago; and $95m to roll out 170 US-wide "early college high schools", where pupils can do university-level courses.

Mr Gates has been scathing of typical large US secondary schools.

Last year, he said they were "obsolete" and "ruining the lives of millions of Americans" by failing to prepare them for the 21st-century workforce.

At inner-city Seattle's Cleveland high school, made up of three discrete small academies, and a Gates funding recipient since 1999, principal Donna Marshall credits the approach with test scores gains last year that ranked the school among the city's most improved. "There's more attention on teaching because you have smaller groups."

But despite such success stories, the foundation's overall track record is chequered. Criticism levelled against some Gates schools has claimed they lack the academic breadth of larger schools.

Mr Gates owned up to mistakes last week, conceding "setbacks where we realised it's tougher (than we thought) to transform schools.

"We need another three to five years before (it will be) clear which models are working," he said.

The foundation has refined its thinking after being criticised for pushing smallness as a panacea, said Professor Hill. "(They) understood small was (only) a proxy for other things like intense teacher-student relationships," he said. "They've realised that smallness isn't a sufficient prescription."

Ms Marshall criticised the Gates preoccupation with "structure and model".

She said: "There was too much attention placed on what the school was supposed to look like and not enough on what was going on inside. Now they're saying whoops."

Professor Hill said the foundation had learned that it was difficult to break up large schools into multiple smaller ones and it was more effective to start from scratch.

And having started out funding progressive instructional methods it was now also backing more traditional approaches, he noted.

"They're more willing to accept that a highly-structured curriculum can (also) lead to a personalised small school, if done right."

He said the foundation's long-term commitment distinguished it from previous philanthropy.

"I would be surprised if Mr Gates is not still working in this area 10 years from now."

Bill Gates

1955 Born Seattle, Washington. His mother is a teacher. Gates attends state school until he's 11, when he enters exclusive private Lakeside school.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is a fellow pupil. Gates begins programming computers at 13.

1975 Develops programming language with Allen for the first personal computer. After selling it to the manufacturer, drops out of Harvard to found Microsoft.

1980 Secures contract to supply operating system for IBM's first desktop computer. After other companies build clones of the IBM machine, Microsoft licenses MS-Dos, forerunner to Windows, to them too, as PCs begin to take off.

1986 Investors snap up Microsoft shares and Gates, at 31, becomes the youngest-ever self-made billionaire.

1990s Insatiable demand for Windows and Microsoft's Office software drives Gates' fortune into the tens of billions of dollars.

2006 Fortune magazine puts Gates' personal wealth at $50bn.

Warren Buffet

1930 Born in Omaha, Nebraska. Attends school there and in Washington DC, where his father is a senator.

1955 Having obtained business degrees from Nebraska university and Columbia university, forms the Buffet Partnership, his first investment fund, aged 25, amassing a fortune through shrewd investments.

1969 Cashes in the fund just before the stock market plummets, and buys up Massachusetts textile business Berkshire Hathaway, steadily turning it into an investment conglomerate with holdings ranging from banks and insurance firms to media outlets and food manufacturers.

2006 Now known as the "Oracle of Omaha". While Forbes estimates Buffet's personal wealth at $44bn, he takes a "nominal" salary of $100,000.

Sources: Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, Microsoft, Fortune

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