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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Education as a Civil Right

July 27, 2011

Right now, our education system is falling short wherever poverty is pervasive and children of color are concentrated.

Fixing this is what the Gates Foundation’s work in education is all about. In fact, Bill Gates spoke on July 28 at the National Urban League’s annual conference, where he addresses exactly these issues. Our U.S. Program invests in improving education so that all young people, regardless of skin color or zip code, have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

I understand this firsthand. Thanks to my education, I had choices unavailable to my father.

When I was growing up in Denver, both of my parents each worked two jobs to make ends meet, in the hopes that my brothers and I would have those opportunities and choices that they never had.

Of course, I didn’t understand that at the time. I wanted to be a postman, just like my father. So, one day when I was in the second grade, my father got me out of bed at the crack of dawn on the coldest, snowiest, Saturday morning in January and said, "Okay. Let’s go. I want to teach you what it’s like to be a postman."

A few hours later, after trudging around in the snow to deliver mail, I wasn’t so sure that being a postman was the career for me.

Today, I understand that my father was trying to get me see that I didn’t have to follow in his footsteps. I would be able to decide whether I wanted to be a postman or a doctor or lawyer or accountant or anything else.

All children should have the opportunity to make the same decisions. So what’s standing in their way?

On average, a black student is two to three years behind his white peer. Almost 70 percent of black fourth graders cannot read at grade level. And because they’re falling behind, they drop out.

Because they drop out, they remain economically trapped, with fewer and more limited job prospects, making it even harder to break the cycle of poverty.

This lack of achievement stunts our economy, swallows up dreams, and denies civil rights. And this isn’t just about the future of individual children or communities. It’s about the future of our country, and America’s ability to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.

At the Gates Foundation, we believe that every child, regardless of race family income, ZIP code, or life circumstance, can succeed. But we also understand that poverty can make life’s hurdles even higher.

One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, once wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

Our eyes are wide open to the fact that poverty is a multifaceted, tough problem. Our work focuses on one piece of the problem. And there are a number of foundations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies doing great work to address the larger issues surrounding poverty. We choose to focus on education because it’s where we feel we can have the greatest impact.

Why? Because we see examples of how the right approaches to education, and the right partnerships, can help surmount some of poverty’s challenges. And as a result, we believe strongly that excellence and equity in education shouldn’t be seen as a result that can only be achieved once poverty is overcome. We see it as one of the critical means by which poverty can be overcome.

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