United Way of Los Angeles
October 4, 2007
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair
It is such a pleasure to be here this afternoon talking about the United Way, which is my favorite organization. As far as I am concerned, being involved with the United Way is a direct measure of local citizenship. Whoever and wherever you are, philanthropy starts with the United Way.
That is true for my family. The United Way was our first and best teacher on the subject.
When my kids were growing up, we talked about our work with the United Way of King County in Washington state. Bill's mother Mary was on the allocation committee, and I recall many dinner table conversations spent debating the decisions the committee was making.
Well, debating is one way to put it. Getting harangued by your son is another way. Here's what I remember: As soon as Mary started talking, Bill, who was in his teens, would interrupt: "Mom," he'd say, "let's look at this strategically—what needs aren't being met? What other problems contribute to this problem? Who's trying to meet them? What results are they getting? How do you measure that?" My daughters Libby and Kristi would pitch in, and I would wonder why my children were better than I was at cross-examinations!
Years later, when Bill started thinking about encouraging Microsoft's employees to do work in the community, the United Way was a natural partner. He has supported the organization through Microsoft's Employee Giving Campaign since 1983. And when Bill and Melinda decided to set up the foundation, they built on the lessons they learned from their years of involvement with the United Way.
I'm always amazed at how such a well-established organization can also be so innovative when it comes to figuring out how to help our neighbors.
The United Way in Los Angeles is no exception. One of your top priorities is guaranteeing that high school students here graduate—and that when they graduate they have the skills they need to do well in college and in their careers.
You hit the bull's eye when you decided high schools would be your target. I am convinced that solving the high school crisis is our society's most pressing moral obligation and our most urgent domestic policy priority. That is what I would like to talk about today.
It is a moral obligation because we are supposed to live in the land of opportunity, where all young people who are willing to work for it have the chance to succeed. But the way our schools are now, opportunity is something you have to luck into.
At the Gates Foundation, we started our work in education from that moral premise. Bill and Melinda created the foundation because they believe that all lives have equal value. They know that the millions of children stuck in failing schools are just as precious as their own children, my grandchildren.
So we got into education reform because it's the right thing to do, but as we learned more we also reached the conclusion that, in their current condition, our schools are putting our whole society at risk.
I’m talking about the health of our society in the broadest terms. Economically. Socially. Culturally. Each year's cohort of dropouts costs us $325 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes.
Dropouts are eight times more likely to be in jail or prison than high school graduates.
Only a quarter of dropouts vote. The figure for high school graduates is half, and it's three quarters for college graduates.
A few months ago, I attended a seminar at the Aspen Institute on the hot topic of American competitiveness. It featured some of the brightest thinkers we have on the subject: a former chairman at Goldman Sachs, an undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury Department, the CEO of a major insurance firm, the CEO of a major international accounting firm, and the lead economist from President Clinton's White House.
These experts come from all sorts of backgrounds, but it didn't take them more than a few minutes to agree that the most serious threat to America's continued competitiveness is the crisis in our public schools.
That seminar brought to my mind the landmark 1983 report on education, Nation at Risk. The famous paragraph from Nation at Risk put the problem in a way I'll never forget:
"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," it said, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
This was during the Cold War, and the experts in our own government were comparing our own schools to Soviet missiles!
That was 25 years ago, and progress in this war against the status quo in education has been slow. Painfully slow.
Let me give you an idea of how big the problem is right now. Right now, more than 1 million kids drop out of high school every year. Another million kids get diplomas that don't mean what a diploma should mean—that graduates know what they need to know to have a fulfilling future.
Those are the national numbers, and let's be honest: They are just plain horrible. So what is there to say about the numbers here in L.A.? They are no better. Your graduation rate in this city is less than 50 percent. Half the kids who start the ninth grade in this city never graduate from high school. In some neighborhoods, even fewer make it through.
There is no way to sugar coat it. That is no way to treat our children, and it is no way to run a city if you want it to thrive.
But there is good news. There is great news. We have alternatives, and they can work. Innovators are chipping away at the status quo, and they're getting results.
Let me give you three very different examples.
First, a brand new approach to high school education is starting to emerge. Cutting-edge schools are aiming higher and giving students more support so they can achieve goals that are loftier than ever before. These schools ask their students—students who weren’t making the grade in their old schools—to do more, not less. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but it works.
I just saw one of these schools before coming over here. It's part of a network of new schools that are cropping up all over Los Angeles called Green Dot Schools, and let me tell you: I was amazed.
Before I visited Oscar de la Hoya Animo school, I knew the stats. The percentage of students proficient in English language arts was double the percentage at other schools serving the same population. The percentage of students proficient in math was more than six times higher than the percentage at comparable schools. Oscar de la Hoya is taking the very same students who are languishing in traditional schools and giving them the chance to excel.
So I was ready to be impressed. And then I met the students, and the teachers, and I was really impressed.
Let me summarize that experience: It is simple. If you folks in this room could all have that same meeting - to hear teachers contrast their feelings about impact; to feel the enthusiasm of those students - you would agree that it would not take long for the LA school system to be transformed.
And now Green Dot is going to be taking on Locke High School, bringing to Watts the high expectations and the supportive environment that are characteristic of Green Dot schools.
The second example of momentum in Los Angeles is that students and their parents are starting to demand more. I'm not talking about some vague sense that kids are frustrated and their parents are fed up. I’m talking about the fact that they're getting organized and pushing for the specific reforms that they know will make their schools better. And they are succeeding.
Two years ago, a group in South L.A. called Community Coalition and another group in East L.A. called Inner City Struggle helped co-author a school board resolution to make sure college-prep courses are standard at all L.A.'s high schools. Then they went out and gathered more than 15,000 signatures in support of that resolution. Then several hundred of their members showed up at the board meeting where the resolution was debated—and adopted.
Those are the makings of a sustainable grass roots movement on behalf of the students who need it most. The remarkable thing to me is that the students are the major participants. Students are acting on their own behalf.
The third example of momentum is that from top to bottom—from your city's leaders to its citizens—people here are recognizing that your schools should be top priority. Mayor Villaraigosa has made education one of his signature issues, and he helped spur the creation of a nonprofit called the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. That group just raised $50 million from the business leaders Richard and Melanie Lundquist and is looking to support real change.
Meanwhile, in recent years the voters passed bonds that will provide almost $20 billion to help this city build new schools and improve the horrible conditions in which some students are expected to learn. These new and improved schools will be inspiring places to learn—and symbols of your commitment to public education.
So that's the great news. Los Angeles is committed to fundamental school reform, you're putting your money where your mouth is, and we have examples of the requisite expertise close at hand.
But, from what I am told, one group that really needs to be at the center of these efforts has yet to get involved in a smart, strategic way. I am talking about you—the business community—and I am here to suggest that you need to take that step. I am here to suggest that you pledge yourselves as individuals—and as a group—to making an aggressive and coordinated effort to fix your city's schools.
So that I am not just scolding, let me suggest some ways you can take the lead in the movement for school reform.
First, support your schools and students as the district moves toward college prep for all. Be loud about it. I sometimes feel as if I talk about schools until I'm blue in the face, and you should too. This process is going to take a long time and lot of hard work, and it will succeed only if you raise your voice and keep it raised.
Second, build relationships with high schools to help their students make more meaningful choices about their own education. A mountain of research shows that students do better when they understand why their classes are relevant. One of the best ways to instill this sense of relevance is by asking students to apply what they're learning in the classroom in the real world of work. That’s where you come in.
Let me give you two examples of effective relationships between businesses and schools from other communities in California. Students at Health Professions High School in Sacramento participate in internship programs at Sutter Health System, UC Davis Health System, Kaiser Permanente, and dozens of other businesses.
All of these students will also graduate having completed a rigorous curriculum that prepared them for college. This school has not just been adopted by a business partner; it has been adopted by an industry. Health Professions High has about 300 partners who arrange not only internships but also field trips, guest speakers, and job shadow programs.
In San Diego at the Construction Tech Academy, students learn about all aspects of the construction industry by designing buildings, mastering complex computer programs, and studying engineering fundamentals. At the same time, they take tough, college-level classes.
In L.A., you have a strong health care industry. You have a thriving construction industry. Need I say more?
Tight relationships between businesses and schools are good for students, because they learn more. They're also good for business, because you get to influence how tomorrow's employees are learning today. And, I might add, it's good corporate citizenship.
Finally, you can show leadership as businesses by lending your expertise to help solve the special challenges facing high schools. You are the experts in figuring out how to run organizations efficiently. You are the innovators. And you have the resources. Our schools need your help. The school system needs your leadership and your commitment.
Business leaders in other cities are taking this project on. In Boston, a group called the Boston Plan for Excellence, or BPE, has been working hand in glove with the school district since 1984 to bring the business perspective to bear. They have pushed the city to pilot new programs to train teachers and principals and experiment with funding. Again, the results are impressive. Boston is a pioneer, and one of the most successful urban school districts in the country.
These are very tangible ways that you can join the fight. And as I stand here looking out at all of you, it occurs to me that this very event is an opportunity. When I finish, I hope you will talk to your friends at your table about what you can do. I hope you will support the United Way in its efforts to change the way L.A. educates its young people.
And when you get back to your offices, go talk to your community relations folks and ask them what you're doing with schools and what more you can do. Revisit your benefits package and give your employees credit if they volunteer to tutor.
Some of these steps are small, and you should take them as soon as possible. Some of these steps are big, and you should start planning to take them.
You are a big, powerful community, and you should think big. You should think big, because anything less would be a waste of your talents. You should think big, because big ideas are what our students need from you. You should think big, because together you can turn your big thoughts into action.
Our society has let its children down for too long. But we have the chance right now to do right by them, and to make our country stronger in the process.
I know that when the job has been done, as it surely will be done, you will want to look back and tell yourself that you did your part.