Education leaders had two significant reasons to cheer in June: On June 15, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said he will transition from day-to-day responsibilities at the company to concentrate on the charitable work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Just days later, billionaire investor Warren Buffett said he would give a significant portion of his wealth to charity–the bulk of which will go to Gates’ foundation. The two announcements are likely to have a huge impact on school reform efforts in the United States.

The Gates Foundation supports the creation of smaller, technology-driven high schools, among other initiatives, and it has been a leading provider of charitable ed-tech funding in recent years. Since April alone, it has given $21 million to the Chicago Public Schools to establish a more rigorous–and relevant–high school curriculum (see story: Chicago gets $21M to retool schools) and $10 million to North Carolina to develop 150 small high schools that will focus on areas such as biotechnology, information technology, and other fields (see story: showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6313). Buffett’s contribution of about $1.5 billion a year to the Gates Foundation will be used to improve American education and seek cures for the world’s most troubling diseases, Gates said during a June 26 news conference.

It’s fair to say that the size of the problems that we’re taking on, whether it’s in the global area … or in education, we think that we can … more than double the impact we have,” said Gates. “The early successes we have [had] now give us the opportunity … to scale up using the amazing resources that Warren [has] made available.”

In 2005, the Gates’ family foundation reportedly gave more than $284 million to education-related causes. Though unable to predict exactly how much of Buffett’s pledge–the total value of which is expected to exceed $31 billion over the next several years–will be earmarked for schools, Gates and his wife Melinda said Buffett’s gift will enable the foundation to more than double its annual commitment to major program areas, such as improving education or promoting the spread of world health.

Buffett said his first donation of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. stock would go to the Gates Foundation last month.

The foundation, which has assets of $30.6 billion, spends money on world health, poverty, and increasing access to technology in developing countries. In the United States, it focuses on education and technology in public libraries.

The money from Buffett, who is 75 but considered strong and healthy, comes with a significant catch. Buffett says he wants all his money to be distributed in the year it is donated, not added to the foundation’s assets for future giving. The foundation gave away $1.36 billion in 2005, so the Buffett commitment would effectively double its spending. Buffett said he would give away 12,050,000 Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway stock to five foundations in all. The gifts would be worth nearly $37 billion, which represents the bulk of the $44 billion that Buffet’s stock holdings are worth today. Five-sixths of the shares will be earmarked for the Gates Foundation.

Gates, the world’s richest man, announced earlier in June that he would be stepping back from his day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft by July 2008 so he can spend more time on the Seattle-based foundation. The foundation followed his announcement by saying Melinda Gates also would be taking a more active role in their philanthropic work. Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, said in an interview with Fortune magazine that the timing of the two announcements one week apart was just “happenstance.” Education leaders who spoke with eSchool News said Microsoft’s loss could be education’s gain, as Gates focuses more personal attention on school reform and other funding initiatives.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., said Gates’ absence from Microsoft’s day-to-day operations could create quite a void. But, he added, having Gates spend more time on his charitable efforts could be a boon for educational technology.

“He has the ability to be heard, and what he says might have the potential to move ed tech way beyond eMail and PowerPoint to applications that really change education as we know it,” Liebman said. “That will be exciting to watch.”

Raymond Yeagley, former superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., Public Schools and a special advisor to the Northwest Evaluation Association, echoed Liebman’s sentiments. “With his passion to reinvent the American high school … there is little doubt that he will have a significant impact on the future of education,” Yeagley said. “New ideas will be tried and new technologies applied in ways that can’t even be considered with tax dollars. If only a small share of those ideas are productive, and if those that will best serve students are pursued aggressively, then the magnitude of private funding under his control for discovery and development can move our national discussion forward much more quickly and productively.”

Gates said he would continue as Microsoft’s chairman after transferring his duties over a two-year period.

“This was a hard decision for me,” said Gates, who founded Microsoft with childhood friend Paul Allen. “I’m very lucky to have two passions that I feel are so important and so challenging. As I prepare for this change, I firmly believe the road ahead for Microsoft is as bright as ever.”

Microsoft’s chief technical officer, Ray Ozzie, immediately will assume Gates’ title as chief software architect and will begin working with Gates on overseeing all software technical design.

Chief Technical Officer Craig Mundie immediately will take the new title of chief research and strategy officer and will work with Gates in those areas. Mundie also will partner with general counsel Brad Smith to guide Microsoft’s intellectual property and technology policy efforts.

In January 2000, Gates assumed the role of chief software architect and Steve Ballmer took over the role of chief executive officer. Ballmer remains responsible for all day-to-day operations and the company’s business strategy.

“Bill and I are confident we’ve got a great team that can step up to fill his shoes and drive Microsoft innovation forward without missing a beat,” Ballmer said.

Ozzie and Mundie will continue to report to Gates. At an unspecified time during the two-year transition period, they will shift to reporting to Ballmer.

Microsoft’s Windows software runs well over 90 percent of the nation’s desktop computers and many of its servers. Last year, Windows narrowly overtook Unix to claim the top spot in server sales for the first time, according to a February report from market research firm IDC. In schools, about 70 percent of the installed base of computers are Windows machines, according to 2005 figures from Quality Education Data.