New York — For the rest of this century independent, non-profit foundations will play a growing role in the schoolyards and classrooms of America's public schools.
The present day custodians of the philanthropic traditions bequeathed by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford plan to counter, if only at the margin, the low esteem and fiscal problems of schools.
But they do not want their increased involvement mistaken for that of a substitute teacher.
''Foundations must be very aware and make it very clear that their money cannot replace tax dollars. Foundations cannot replace, or even support, the regular public financial base. Private money can only seed new programs. It should be risk capital, used for promoting and recognizing excellence in the classroom,'' says Edward J. Meade Jr., director of elementary and secondary education programs at the Ford Foundation.
Foundations should, experts say, continue to fund long-range research about schools, a role a number of them have always played. (The current underwriting of a nationwide, two-year study of the American public high school by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is one example. The Ford Foundation's research on teaching math and science to women and minorities is another.)
They should continue to fund local as well as national watchdog groups to monitor compliance with state and federal laws passed in the '60s and '70s to help schools meet the needs of minority and poor students.
But no longer can foundations assume an expanding state or federal role in public education. The familiar process of pointing out a problem, funding a demonstration project, and then getting a government agency to take it over appears less feasible, given a retracting federal posture.
''If foundations in the '80s and '90s want to get involved in education,'' says Mr. Meade, ''they must look for new ways to help where most of the students are, where the future of the country, with its principles of equity, reside - the public schools, big city schools in particular.''
''In general,'' says Landrum Bolling, former director of the Council of Foundations in Washington, D.C., ''foundations will continue to use their giving as a highly leveraged, broadly informed, financial contribution to a given set of goals. The role permanent pools of money controlled by foundations should play in public schools is open, that they will be used more extensively in those schools is not.''
Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundaton for the Advancement of Teaching, says that for the remainder of this century private philanthropy can support public education in the following ways and for the following reasons:
* Help meet the challenge of changing demographics. Large urban areas have increasingly become the place for minority youth. These millions of students should not be left to a second-rate education that translates into second-class citizenship.
* Teach literacy. Make the mastery of language, both English and the new symbolic language required by computer technology, a priority in public education.
* Strengthen teaching as a profession. Without good teachers, well paid teachers, you cannot save public education.
* Determine the appropriate federal role for the public schools. Mr. Boyer sees the nation's future linked to the public schools, where there are 40 million children, 90 percent of the school population in the country. To talk about national well-being in a competitive world and not talk about the public schools is to not understand the relationship between education and progress.
But grand designs may have sad results, say critics of a too-active private role in public education. Well-intentioned giving, if it is not tempered with a realistic understanding of what is needed and how it can be accomplished, can result in a great deal of damage, these critics say.
Irving Kristol, director of the Institute for Educational Affairs, co-editor of the Public Interest magazine, and a member of the Wall Street Journal's board of contributors, said in a recent interview, ''Foundations should make up their own mind about the extent of their involvement in public schools and realize they have no more perception of what is right or wrong in social change, of what is effective or what is desirable, than anyone else.''
Mr. Kristol, in a speech last year before the Council of Foundations, said: ''If what they (foundations) do works, fine. But they should be humble enough to realize that they do not necessarily have a superior understanding of what society needs, in what directions society ought to go, or even, in what direction society can go.''
One area where there is an apparent consensus that private money is doing things that work for public schools is a West Coast trend to establish local, nonprofit foundatons with the single purpose of supporting public education.
Three years ago there were only a few such foundations. Today, conservative estimates number more than 100 of the independent, locally controlled bodies, most of them in California. (The budget cuts resulting from Propostition 13 in 1978 account for the West Coast origin of this phenomenon.)
The movement has attracted attention in cities and states around the nation as schools grapple with ways to maintain quality programs in a period of budget cuts and recession.
Since local education foundations are supported by donations from parents, business groups, and other foundations, observers say their growth, if they catch on, may signal a renewed community commitment to public schools.
The grants from these small foundations range from $300 to $5,000. They support such efforts as the expansion of an after-school theater program or creative writing for gifted 5th graders in San Francisco to a gardening course for inner-city biology students in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Meade, the Ford Foundation program director, foresees such small grants, regardless of their source, having an impact far beyond any dollar amount. ''They are grass-roots morale builders for teachers and students. It shows those in the schools that some people in the community care about what they are doing.''
''The Ford Foundation should know,'' says Tom James of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago. ''Their program of city high school recognition grants practices just what they preach about grass-roots support having an impact.''
Last May, the Ford Foundation presented 110 high schools in 36 cities with checks for $1,000 for use by the student bodies. The money went to honor urban schools that significantly improved their performance in such areas as academic achievement, student life, parental participation in school activities, and placement of graduates in jobs or colleges.
Fifty of the 110 high schools from the initial selection received an additional $20,000 in October to reinforce or extend the practices that resulted in performance improvements.
How effective are these mini-grants at boosting the morale and commitment of a school? ''We couldn't have spent our money better,'' Mr. Meade says.
Rule High School in Knoxville, Tenn., (a school described as 50 percent black , 50 percent white, and 100 percent poor) received one of the $20,000 grants. It resulted in all 650 students plus faculty signing a statement accepting the challenge of the Ford grant to continue to improve in excellence.