She's In The Money

Every year, the Gates Foundation gives away more than $250 million to public education. How can you make sure you get a share? Get to know "Hurricane" Vicki Phillips. This former Portland (OR) Public Schools superintendent is the new director of education grant making for the foundation and one of the most powerful figures in education.

"I have a bias toward action, and I share Bill and Melinda’s sense of urgency. I have always been known for my limited tolerance for continuing to admire the problem."

Q: What’s the biggest thing that you didn’t know about the foundation when you took the job?
A: The mindset here. Everyone is eager to tackle the toughest challenges and is always mindful that the goal is to better the entire institution of public education.

Q: What values do you bring to the job that could impact the foundation’s giving?
A: Because I’ve had the opportunity to work at every level of the system—as a special needs teacher, superintendent, and chief state school officer—I am convinced that the system can be changed with the right policy, the right partners, and the right supports for students.

Q: What do you call the bosses?
A: I call them Bill and Melinda. But I must admit it is still a bit startling to see e-mail from the creator of the desktop computer in your inbox.

Q: Some people think that the Gates Foundation wants to take control of public education. How do you reassure them that you don’t, or won’t?
A: Bill and Melinda believe that education is fundamentally a public good. That is why our partners in schools, districts, and states are so critical.

Q: If anyone says anything bad in public about the foundation, you immediately yank their funding, right?
A: Absolutely not. In fact, we encourage our partners also to be our critics. Our interest is in results.

Q: Admit it. You’re on a Mac right now.
A: A Mac? What’s that?

Q: Are turnarounds the next small schools?
A: I We often are asked whether we will continue to support small schools or pursue other strategies for improving outcomes for students. The answer is “yes” and “yes.”

Q: How did you get the nickname “Hurricane Vicki” when you were the head of the Portland Public Schools?
A: As the foundation’s president for our U.S. program noted upon my arrival, I have a bias toward action, and I share Bill and Melinda’s sense of urgency. I have always been known for my limited tolerance for continuing to admire the problem.

Q: What was your biggest accomplishment in Portland, and what was the biggest piece of business left undone?
A: We made gains in student achievement every year in subjects where we were woefully behind, such as writing. Portland, like the nation, still has to ensure all students graduate ready for college, career, and life.

Q: As a former district-level administrator, what’s your advice for school leaders who work with the foundation?
A: We view our grantees—schools, school organizations, and school districts—as partners and collaborators doing much needed core work toward the larger agenda of improving achievement for all students.

Q: You came from humble beginnings.
A: I grew up in a small Kentucky town with a name straight out of a Dickens novel: Falls of Rough. And rough it could be. No one ever encouraged me to do more than finish high school. But I had a friend who insisted that I was going to college, and did all she could to make it happen. Otherwise, I would probably not be here.

Q: You and Margaret Spellings are arguably the two most powerful figures in public education right now. Think you could take her at Jeopardy?
A: We would have a lot of fun!