TORONTO - Bill Gates had the good fortune to attend private school, and he sends his children there, too. Yet the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist has a passion to fix America's public schools.
Gates has been on a road show this year to promote the education documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman,' " talking it up at its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and elsewhere, including the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film played ahead of its theatrical release Friday.
"I certainly owe all my success to having had a great education. I went to an incredible school, and I remember the teachers who encouraged me. I'm so lucky. I had what every kid should have, honestly," Gates said.
"We're a country that talks about equal opportunity, but without a great education, there is no equal opportunity. And we're a country that talks about how we're the best and the richest and we set an example. But without good education, our relative position in the world will decline."
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, an Academy Award winner for his Al Gore global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," "Waiting for ‘Superman"' catalogs the ills of public schools, particularly in inner-city areas: Bloated bureaucracies, high dropout rates, low percentages of graduates going on to college, teachers unions that can put the interests of adults ahead of the needs of children.
Amid all of the obstacles, the film offers lesson plans about innovative education initiatives, examining the success of the Knowledge Is Power Program Foundation's network of charter schools, the Harlem Children's Zone that aims to guide schooling from infancy through college, and radical alterations to the school system in Washington, D.C.
"Waiting for ‘Super-
man' " also brings heartbreaking drama to the story as it follows five children whose futures are controlled by chance - lotteries to determine the handful of students who will be admitted to alternative schools where they would receive a vastly improved education.
"There are some things going on in some of these schools where the cost per student is actually lower
than at the normal public school, and instead of sending less than 5 percent to four-year colleges, they're sending over 90 percent," said Gates.
"You go to these charters and you sit and talk to these kids about how engaged they are with adults and how much they read and what they think about and how they do projects together. This isn't some narrow, OK, we'll just get them to multiply type thing going on. This is an experience that develops their potential, and that potential is there in all kids, but overwhelmingly not developed by the normal public school experience."
Education is the primary U.S. focus for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $23 billion to health care, agriculture and other causes around the world.
Gates said he initially was eager to talk with Guggenheim for the documentary, "like I am with anybody who cares about education." Once he saw the finished film late last year, Gates came on board to help promote it, as well, realizing how it could help the school cause.
"It became obvious that we had an incredible opportunity because he'd told the story so well," Gates said.
Guggenheim weaves in images of George Reeves in the title role of the TV show "Adventures of Superman" as a metaphor, the film depicting visionary educators as potential superheroes who might save public schools.
Gates' profile, on screen and in appearances to publicize the movie, has brought star power to broaden the audience for the documentary, Guggenheim said.
"He's been a superhero for our movie," Guggenheim said. "I could show what's happening to kids and their families, but I needed someone to speak to our position globally. I wanted someone who's brilliant but who has been a businessman, who understands what it's like to have a workforce, and who understands where the modern economy is going. I had a list of one person I wanted to interview, and it was him. He's spent the last 10 years studying public schools, so he was the perfect sort of person for that."
Though his own family has had the benefit of private schools, Gates said KIPP charter schools and other alternatives depicted in "Waiting for ‘Superman"' offer as good an education as he had growing up.
Such classrooms present a hopeful contrast to the failures of many traditional public schools, he said.
"A family like mine should not use up the inner-city capacity of these great schools, but if by some happenstance, my kids had to go to KIPP schools, I wouldn't feel bad at all. If they had to go to a general inner-city school, I would do anything I could to avoid that being the case, because as a parent, I particularly see the potential in my kids that that wouldn't unleash," Gates said.
"We're going to need a lot more awareness of what can be done and what is being done, so the movie is perfect in that respect, in a way that's very personal and you can connect to. It shows you children who chance will decide whether they get the education they deserve, or they get an education far, far worse than they deserve."