Always a trendy mission for philanthropists, public education reform has recently become the target of an increasing number of wealthy donors and their foundations. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious reform agenda has been boosted by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and staunchly supported by the emerging Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropic venture of the SunAmerica, Inc. chairman Eli Broad and the primary benefactor of his personal fortune. An October 11 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (“Public Schools Are Becoming Charity Cases”) pointed out that the state of California alone has more than 400 local foundations whose primary purpose is to raise money to support public education. While this list may include sources like local public education funds and community foundations, their sheer number hints at a widespread need. Should we view such philanthropy as the possible savior of the public school system or is it a more ominous sign of an increasingly needy and dependent public school system?
In most cases such charity is helpful and sincere, and often well-researched and planned. And no one can argue that public schools and systems don’t need all the help they can get. But what I find startling about public education philanthropy is the incredible amount of talent and resources working for public education but ultimately working outside of the schools and communities themselves. The Gates Foundation, whose 2003 education grants approached $2 billion, is just one example of a large private foundation that possesses enormous financial resources and employs top-level thinkers to distribute them. Education-based philanthropy is an industry unto itself.
But public schools should be wary of any kind of reliance on private philanthropy. Donor dollars are rarely free of political interests and networks that have an unfortunate habit of placing the interests of students and teachers on the back burner. If large school districts acquire a taste for philanthropic dollars, they may be less likely to pursue realistic, effective budgets that are based on student and community need rather than donor-interest. Additionally, their position in the public arena as institutions beholden to and supported by taxes from local voters would be weakened, and it would become more difficult for districts to lobby for new school levies.
Also, while these philanthropic organizations may offer attractive opportunities for individuals to work in education reform, Yale students and other young people who hope to improve public education should still consider public schools the best place to put their talent and energy. While research and consulting positions at foundations and think tanks may be more attractive and less stressful modes of employment than work at struggling public schools, the recruitment of motivated, intelligent and educated individuals to work directly in public school communities — whether as teachers or in other positions — is perhaps the best hope for public education in this country. Wealthy donors are going to be wealthy donors, and will continue to give away their money to causes like public education, but that doesn’t mean that young, talented individuals should commit their time to these philanthropic organizations before pursuing direct work in school communities.
So, the next time you read about a $50 million gift to a struggling public school district, applaud it, but remember that it may be only a small fraction of a $12 billion district budget. Also consider that talented and motivated individuals, collectively, can make a significant difference in the system by working directly in it and challenging and questioning its practices from within, rather than by allocating funds or disseminating research that may end up in the political wastebin. I have been researching the work of progressive teachers in New Haven in the 1970s, who went to work as teachers fresh out of college and discovered powerful methods of school and community change through their work as teachers. While some have remained teachers and others have gone on to different careers, almost all maintain strong convictions about public schooling that inform nearly every decision they make — and none consider their work in schools a wasted effort.
Nick Strohl is a senior in Berkeley College.