Education activist lobs criticism back at Bill Gates in Internet mini-war

You'd think a gazillionaire like Bill Gates would have plenty of swaggering, similarly flush enemies. But at least one reporter claims that the "biggest adversary" of the king of Microsoft is a contrarian education historian who rails against Obama-approved reforms like independent charter schools and linking teacher pay to test scores.

The heated Internet war between Gates, who now chiefly devotes his time to philanthropy and education reform, and New York University professor Diane Ravitch intensified this week when the Microsoft founder name-checked her in a Newsweek profile that focused on his extensive education efforts.

"Does she like the status quo? Is she sticking up for decline? Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts? Does she think all those 'dropout factories' are lonely? If there's some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we're all ears," Gates told the magazine's Jonathan Alter, who called Ravitch Gates' "biggest adversary."

Ravitch wrote extensive responses to each of Gates' questions that were posted Tuesday on a Washington Post education blog. "I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers' pay," she wrote, referring to Gates' belief that teachers with master's degrees should not be paid more than those without them. In another zinger, she said Gates should be praising teachers for their hard work, and pointed out many make less than secretaries who work at Microsoft.

Though Gates hasn't made any more public comments about Ravitch, she continued the drumbeat in a Education Week blog post Tuesday, saying Gates doesn't understand that schools are different from Microsoft. "If he didn't run the biggest foundation in the world, if he wasn't one of the richest men in the world, would anyone care about his opinion of education?" she said.

Ravitch tells The Lookout she loves the designation as Gates's adversary. "I love it. It means he hears me, even if he doesn't want to. I have no staff. Just my voice and my ideas," she said in an email.

"Teachers are full partners in our work to ensure that every student is prepared for college and the workforce," Gates Foundation spokesman Chris Williams said in an email in response to Ravitch's critiques. "We support efforts in several communities across the country where teachers and their unions are leading the effort to re-think how they are rewarded, promoted, recruited, developed and supported."

(Ravtich's response: "I have spoken to tens of thousands of teachers in the past six months. They laugh at the Gates Foundation and its patronizing airs.")

The foundation has invested billions in research and programs to improve the American education system and lift graduation rates and test scores.

Ravitch, an education official in the George H. W. Bush administration, has lately become one of the most passionate defenders of teachers' unions, which increasingly are blamed by both the right and left for defending bad teachers. In recent months, conservative activist James O'Keefe as well as the movie "Waiting for Superman," directed by the liberal Davis Guggenheim, have targeted teachers' unions as hidebound bureaucracies, chiefly dedicated to defending their own interests above those of their students.

Gates in particular has assailed the practice of teacher tenure, which insulates unionized public school teachers from the threat of termination after they've logged a few years of adequate performance. He also criticizes the seniority system, where pay and promotions are primarily linked to how long you've been teaching. "Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, 'Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone," he told Newsweek.

The war of words between Gates and Ravitch mirrors the larger policy conflict pitting supporters of corporate-style management in public education against education specialists who want to keep the power to lead schools chiefly within the domain of credentialed authorities -- and teachers' unions. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent appointment of magazine executive Cathie Black to lead New York City's public schools is still stirring up debate on this issue.

(Photo of Gates: AP)

This post has been updated to include the Gates Foundation's response.