“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Barbara Chow is the new director of the Foundation’s Education Program, replacing Marshall Smith, whose term ends on January 5. Chow comes to the Foundation from the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, where she was policy director. Earlier in her career, Chow served in the Clinton White House. From 1993 to 1997, she was a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, in which capacity she was White House liaison to Congress on economic, budget, and appropriation matters. From 1997 to 2001, she worked in the Office of Management and Budget, where she was associate director for Education, Income Maintenance, and Labor.

Chow has a bachelor’s degree in government from Pomona College and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.

What do you see as the most pressing issues in U.S. education?

I don’t know if this is the right order, but-money, for one. In California we know that problem well, but it will become more of an issue everywhere with the economic downturn. Next, I’d mention educating the next generation to compete in the global economy. It’s more of an issue now than it was a decade ago. The rest of the world is catching up fast. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, maybe the United States is falling behind. And with a nation of immigrants such as ours, education has additional challenges. For teachers there are language barriers, there are cultural barriers-so many things to contend with at once. And teachers are being asked to do so much more: help kids test well, make sure they’re not doing drugs, watch for family problems. The list goes on.

And what’s philanthropy’s role in facing those challenges?

I’m a policy person, so I tend to think in terms of leverage. The amounts that state and local governments spend on education outstrip what the federal government or philanthropy can spend to an amazing degree. State and local governments spend something like $500 to $600 billion a year on K-12 education. The federal government spends maybe $40 billion. When you consider that, I think the most successful thing we can do is try to move the larger system. Sometimes we can do this by supporting our grantees’ efforts to address state and local policy; sometimes it’s more indirect. But putting pressure on that system to move is the most important thing philanthropy can do.

The conditions for reform involve several factors. One is having models that are successful. This incredibly important effort is where philanthropy spends a lot of its time. If you can’t prove something works and can be scaled up, you can’t get policymakers to pay any attention to you. So this piece is necessary, but not sufficient. The work is far from done.

You also need a very sophisticated advocacy effort. You need a grassroots element, so that those making education decisions start hearing about reform from multiple constituencies, and then you need a sophisticated communications strategy. Policymakers listen to their constituents, they listen to the media, and they are interested in the substantive aspects of an issue.

What are your priorities for K-12 education in California? How hopeful or pessimistic are you that they can be addressed in light of the state government’s chronic budget problems, and why?

I think it’s tough. Even in good economic times the sheer size and complexity of California’s system make change difficult. The lack of solid data about what works combined with restrictions on revenues compound that difficulty. Still, there is little alternative but to pursue reform.

We need a strategy that involves both working within the system to try to reform it and making progress outside of it as well. I see technology as one of those outside mechanisms-as shown in our work on Open Educational Resources. In addition to improving curricula in schools, it’s also a direct-to-student approach. For example, while it’s important to train teachers to teach Chinese, we also need online courses where kids can learn Chinese directly. It’s certainly a place where progress can be made.

How do you see Open Educational Resources evolving over the next decade, and what’s the Foundation’s role in that?

The next key piece is for organizations offering Open Educational Resources to become financially self-sustaining. Web sites that provide high-quality educational materials for free need to find ways to recover their costs and then some so they can grow. It has to reach that point. And there may be an important role for Hewlett in helping the movement figure out what the business models are.

With problems of such enormous scale, how can philanthropy leverage its influence to be most effective?

We can be most effective if we choose opportunities that are hard for government to recognize or act upon for political or other reasons. Philanthropy can be a much more nimble actor. As I know from working in the executive branch of the White House, you can have an idea for something to put in the federal budget in October, forward it in the State of the Union in January, and then wait for a year, if you’re lucky, for Congress to enact it. And that would be just the beginning. It can then be years, moving at the most aggressive pace, before you actually see anything happen. Meanwhile, opportunities can appear and disappear very rapidly. So philanthropy might have much less money, but it has more capacity to act. That’s one way it can exert influence disproportionately greater than its resources. And it has a convening capability, which other actors really don’t.

What are you most looking forward to as you assume leadership of the Education Program?

I’m looking forward to meeting some of the smartest people who think about education and work on reform-inside and outside this building-and asking them what they are doing and where they see opportunities. There are so many ways to approach education reform that we need to make some decisions. Is the best approach curriculum based? Some foundations focus on math and science. Some focus on certain age groups. Some focus on at-risk kids. And all ways are equally valid. I’m looking forward to making a beginning.

To be able to focus just on social impact: that’s a luxury few people in the world have. I can’t wait.