A PRIVATE philanthropist's half-billion-dollar donation is pocket change in the $220 billion United States public-schools industry. However, education observers agree that the way he's investing it could be the fuel needed to drive innovative programs through the school system.
``The individual actors [receiving the money] are all, in their own way, antiestablishment. This offers a real set of opportunities,'' says Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. ``If the money was going to the same old actors, I wouldn't be as optimistic.''
Alarmed at violence and the growing destabilization of schools, Walter Annenberg, former US ambassador to Britain, last week gave the largest private donation ever to public education.
The half-billion dollars over the next five years will help expand innovative teaching programs and give some schools the technology to establish nationwide curriculum-sharing through electronic libraries.
``We can't afford to stay with the status quo,'' says Secretary of Education Richard Riley, emphasizing the need to ``end the conspiracy of low expectations and recognize that equity and excellence are not incompatible.''
Mr. Annenberg said that education is the surest way to curb violence. Mr. Riley added that 82 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts.
The donation will support specific efforts to improve curriculum, including a national computer network for reform-minded teachers and students. As the nation's second-biggest industry, education remains ``largely untouched'' by innovations in the field of telecommunications, says David Kearns, the director of the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC).
``Grocery stores are much better equipped than our schools,'' says Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, who will be supervising the newly renamed Annenberg National Institute for School Reform at the university.
Although new technology will offer outlets for more stimulating and useful class time, Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado says one ``creative experience'' will not counteract the effects of ``a system [that] squelches you after a few years.''
Schools that now serve as models focus on personalized teaching, with strategies like weekly seminars with small groups of students and advisors and community-service requirements - building the links between students, teachers, and neighborhoods that educators hope will discourage violence.
``Gangs are groups of people who pull together out of fear and a sense that they're not connected,'' says Ted Sizer, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
``Have we failed if a private citizen must come to the table with half a billion dollars? Yes,'' Mr. Romer says. There are successful, anecdotal examples of education reform, but they need to be ``scaled up,'' he says.
John Chubb, curriculum director at the Edison Project, a group working to bring private education services to public schools, says it is important to keep the sum of money in perspective.
``As large a sum of money as it is, [education officials] spend that much before lunch,'' he says, cautioning that it could easily be squandered. Mr. Chubb says that the size of the grant is less important than the way it is spent, and that ``5 or 10 million dollars'' could help sustain some key education efforts.
Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, notes that education has historically gotten ``lots of money from lots of different sources'' with few notable results. But she adds: ``If NASDC is able to set up model schools, and educators can identify reforms that work and help the state to implement them ... it's as good a gamble as anything.''