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President Obama enlists high-powered help in education push

Obama, with Melinda Gates, visit TechBoston Academy in a play for business backing for his plans to invest in education. The school is the pet project of Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation.

March 09, 2011|By Christi Parsons
  • President Obama and Melinda Gates at TechBoston Academy, which draws on help from several major companies.
President Obama and Melinda Gates at TechBoston Academy, which draws on…

Reporting from Washington — President Obama enlisted the help of billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates in selling his education reform ideas on Tuesday, a move he hopes will help convince business leaders to get behind his plans.

Obama's education push: In the March 9 Section A, the headline on an article about President Obama's efforts to promote his ideas for education reform said Bill and Melinda Gates accompanied him on a visit to a pilot school in Boston. Although, as the article stated, Obama had enlisted the help of the couple in selling his strategy, Bill Gates did not attend the event. In addition, the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy was incorrectly referred to as the Brown Center on Education. —

In a speech at a Boston public school, Obama argued that the U.S. should put more money into advancing a "21st century curriculum" to help prepare the future workforce.

"There is no better economic policy than one that produces more graduates with the skills they need to succeed," Obama said at TechBoston Academy, a pilot school. "That's why reforming education is the responsibility of every single American … every business leader."

The appearance served as the second act of the new White House education strategy, in which the president has already tried to enlist Republican support by unveiling former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as his GOP partner.

But despite the play for business and bipartisan support, the president's plan to invest in education remains politically divisive, especially against the backdrop of Middle East turmoil, skyrocketing gas prices and a looming government shutdown.

"When Republicans and fiscal conservatives hear 'invest to win the future,' they think, 'spend and tax' and 'federal control,' " said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution.

At TechBoston Academy, Obama unveiled what will be a key component of his message — a direct appeal to business leaders for support. American competitiveness depends on "out-educating" other countries, in White House parlance.

"Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education," Obama said.

As an example, he said TechBoston integrated technology throughout its curriculum, and offered internships and challenging Advanced Placement courses to all students regardless of test-score history. The graduation rate is 82%, nearly 20 percentage points above the average for the school district as a whole. The vast majority of graduates are in college, and most of those are the first generation in their families to enroll.

The pilot school is the pet project of the Gates Foundation, and draws heavily on help from companies including Cisco Systems, IBM, Microsoft, HP and Google.

"When we talk to business leaders, they tell us that this is really critical work for them," said Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy council director. "For them, thinking out into the future, if we are better educating our children today, it means that their businesses are going to be more competitive tomorrow."

Republicans also want to see schools do a better job of turning out college-ready students.

GOP leaders worried about spending pointed to a program that Obama highlighted on Tuesday — a new agency that would promote educational technology. Republicans say it's too much like other programs.

"At a time when we need to focus on getting our fiscal house in order and streamlining the federal government's role in education, spending more taxpayer dollars on a duplicative program isn't a responsible choice," said Colette Beyer, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Melinda Gates stopped short of a full endorsement of either approach. As she introduced the president, she attributed some of the success at TechBoston to the flexibility the teachers and administrators had to go around the rules that bind other public schools — articulating a principle important to Obama and many Republicans.

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