State Politics

Detert, Bill Gates talk education

MANATEE — State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, was among a group of legislators Tuesday discussing education reform with the billionaire founder of Microsoft Corp., Bill Gates.

Detert, who attended the National Conference of State Legislators meeting in Philadelphia, was invited to be a panel member at a round-table discussion with the benefactor of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which awards education grants, she said.

“He said he has identified 15 states he’d like to work with, and if you’re in this room, you’re one of the 15 states,” said Detert afterward. “He would like to help us with ‘Race to the Top’ money from his foundation.”

The “Race to the Top” grant program entails an estimated $4.35 billion , part of it financed by the U.S. Department of Education, according to the Florida Department of Education Web site. The first applications from state governments for the money are due in December, it said.

Detert, the Florida Senate’s majority whip, chair of its Education Pre-K to 12 Committee and a member of its Education Pre-K to 12 Appropriations Committee, said some of the discussion focused on the nation’s high drop-out rates, and how to institute common standards across all 50 states for curriculum and competence tests, similar to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

“His thinking is he has identified the fact we have a huge drop-out rate that hasn’t improved since the ’70s,” said Detert. “Obviously, we’re doing something wrong.

“I guess we’ll be applying for this Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation money, and trying to capitalize on stimulus dollars, and see if we can’t improve our drop-out rates,” she added. “We are the highest in the nation for drop-out rates, and a lot of that is, we don’t track the kids.”

Among other topics Gates discussed was the concept of paying incentives for high-performing teachers.

“He thinks we should identify the top teachers and reward them,” she added.

The roundtable featured a bipartisan group, with Gates and his staff, state legislators from many different regions and Obama Administration officials, she said. Gates also argued that adoption of national standards would help American students to compete better globally, Detert reported.

“He is talking about having national standards and to place great emphasis on teachers,” said Detert. “The most important thing in the curriculum is the teacher, you can buy all the technology you want, but teachers are still important.”