By Eric Schelzig
NASHVILLE — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and wife Melinda visited Tennessee on Thursday to get a firsthand view of an overhaul in the state’s education system that they helped encourage with their foundation’s $90 million grant to Memphis schools.
The couple met with outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen and Gov.-elect Bill Haslam in Nashville, a day after visiting schools in Memphis.
“We came to Tennessee to see the bold reforms that are happening here, thanks to Gov. Bredesen and the Legislature’s work,” Melinda Gates said at a press conference at the governor’s mansion. “We’re really impressed with the many partnerships that have come together to focus on kids and kids’ outcomes.”
Tennessee this year was among the first two states to win the federal Race to the Top competition, netting the state more than $500 million in grants. Changes adopted by the Legislature this year to qualify for the grants included using testing data as the basis for at least half of teacher evaluations.
Bill Gates said he and his wife “came here to learn, to see what’s going on (and) to encourage the willingness to try the new approaches.”
“This idea of measuring teachers is very important, because a teacher wants to know what they can do better,” he said.
Haslam said he’s eager to encourage future improvements to Tennessee’s education system.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about being the next governor is the incredible momentum around education reform,” the newly elected Republican said. “The discussion we had was incredibly energizing to me.
Bredesen, a term-limited Democrat who leaves office January, said he expects the changes in education to last through several administrations.
“We used the Race to the Top and the Bill and Melinda Gates money in Memphis to be a pivot point to make a lot of changes in education,” he said. “Which ultimately will outlive by far either that grant or the Race to the Top involvement.”
Haslam said there’s more to education reforms than winning the Race to the Top competition.
“The $500 million is wonderful, but it’s only great if we really use it to change course,” he said.