Gates Foundation's Education Chief Controls Billions Portland, Ore., schools superintendent Vicki Phillips starts her job as education director at the Bill and Melinda Gates' Foundation on Wednesday. With more than $3 billion in grant money to give away, Phillips has one of the most powerful K-12 jobs in the country.
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Gates Foundation's Education Chief Controls Billions

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Gates Foundation's Education Chief Controls Billions

Gates Foundation's Education Chief Controls Billions

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Today, Vicki Phillips started work as one of the most powerful education leaders in the country. She's running the education programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also gives money to NPR. Vicki Phillips has more than $3 billion to spend. She's the former superintendent of schools in Portland, Oregon.

And Oregon Public Broadcasting's Rob Manning sent this profile.

ROB MANNING: Vicki Phillips will supervise nearly 10 times the money she had in Portland. And she can spend it practically however she wants, without worrying about public school headaches, like union contracts. But don't expect Vicki Phillips to tell you much about how she'll spend it.

Dr. VICKI PHILLIPS (Education Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation): I really won't take any questions about that position. So to be really clear, I've refused everybody on that front.

MANNING: As a private foundation, Gates can keep mum. But Gates' leaders say that Phillip's philosophy fits well with the enormously wealthy nonprofit. Her ideas were formed growing up in a poor family on a southern tobacco farm. Her ideas were formed growing up in a poor family on a southern tobacco farm.

Dr. PHILLIPS: So I grew up in a little placed Falls of Rough, Kentucky and it was basically, in those days, a general store, a post office, and an old mill, then there was this small, little waterfall there at the bridge.

MANNING: Phillips paints a bucolic picture of rural life, yet she says in high school, no one talked to her about her future.

Dr. PHILLIPS: Not very much in the way of conversations about anything I might do with my life because the elementary school I went to signaled, hmm, poverty more or less.

Dr. LOIS ADAMS-ROGERS (Assistant to the Executive Director, Council of Chief School Officers): Vicki is a great example of why we never ever should make a judgment about someone based upon where they come from.

MANNING: Lois Adams-Rogers leads a national organization for state education chiefs. Like Phillips, Adams-Rogers is a Kentucky native. She recruited Phillips into state policy jobs after Phillips had worked her way through college and proven herself teaching high school. Phillips tackled reforms in Kentucky and also in Pennsylvania, where she ran a school's foundation and the state's education agency. Three years ago, she took over the largest school district in the northwest.

Phillips says she loves getting her kid fix. And on the last day of school in Portland, she's surrounded by first graders who take turns showing her their writing.

Unidentified Child #1: First there were three little foxes. One liked to build and another liked to cook, the last liked to eat. I'm going to stop there.

Dr. PHILLIPS: That's okay. Cool.

MANNING: Phillips has presided over rising test scores in Portland despite unstable funding. Lately, she's prioritized giving low-income schools more than just the basics by expanding art and music programs. She's moved quickly to close eight Portland schools and restructure even more. Her critics say she's moved too fast and may be too beholden to private funders like Gates.

One Portland newspaper compared her forceful nature to a hurricane. But Phillips' new boss at the Gates Foundation, Allan Golston, says she listens yet she won't slow down.

Mr. ALLAN GOLSTON (U.S. Program President, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation): Change is often difficult even in the best circumstances. Vicky is a great partner and a great listener. At the same time, you have to move forward and you have to act.

MANNING: Talk of action sounds good to reformers who suggest the hurricane has not blown hard enough. Ron Herndon is a national advocate for low-income pre-schools, but the longtime schools activist has high hopes as Vicki Phillips heads to Gates.

Mr. RON HERNDON (Former chairman, National Head Start Association): She's not going to be encumbered by the bureaucracy, that she could actually say exactly what she knows to be true because she does. If you gave her a magic wand and said tomorrow, here are the changes that I would make, I think she would do a pretty good job.

MANNING: Gates Foundation leaders say in general, Phillips will focus on getting high schoolers ready for college and 21st century careers. But they may keep details secret for months, maybe until the first round of million-dollar grants come out.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland, Oregon.

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