How much do private gifts help US public schools?
Public education is joining the roster of favored charitable causes.Skip to next paragraph
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Growing awareness of the acute problems in many US schools has placed them high on the lists of philanthropic individuals and foundations. In recent years, they've poured dollars into schools, targeting everything from academic achievement to leaky faucets.
But while generous giving may be a time-honored American approach to trying to remedy problems public funds haven't solved, it's far from clear that the large donations are turning things around in the public schools.
"The myth is that if you give enough money to a poor school system it will improve," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. But in reality, she notes, "It's just not that simple."
Private giving to US education jumped 6.1 percent last year to $27.5 billion, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy.
The Annenberg Foundation in Saint David, Penn., set the high-water mark for an individual gift to public schools in 1993 when it pledged $500 million to boost reform efforts. But some are predicting that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - which recently pledged $350 million to public schools - will eventually outstrip the Annenberg gift.
Individuals, too, are taking an interest in buttressing local schools through whopping cash gifts. Wisconsin philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit offered $25 million to build a public technical high school in Milwaukee, and Hewlett-Packard co-founder William Hewlett pledged $25 million to jump-start achievement at San Francisco schools.
But while all agree that such generosity is laudatory, not everyone agrees it is effective. In an attempt to assess the legacy of the Annenberg gift as it approaches its final days, the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has issued a report, "Can Philanthropy Fix Our Schools?"
After examining three of the 18 sites connected with the Annenberg grants, the report concludes that while the money spent may have made "small footprints" on the school systems, it has not come close to the stated goal of reforming the system.
Defenders of the Annenberg gift point to improved test scores at a number of sites, anecdotal evidence of strengthened classroom experience, and new ideas that have emerged from Annenberg experiments. But some of them say the larger question the Fordham report raises is sound.
"The philanthropic approach is basically flawed," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a specialist in urban schools. Often, he says, it becomes "a really ineffective way to throw around a lot of money."
While commending the generosity behind such gifts, Professor Hess says they sometimes involve "ineffective goals, lack of direction and accountability." The aims they promote may or may not blend with reform efforts the school system is already undertaking, and at their worst, charitable programs can prove a distraction to overburdened teachers and administrators.
"You put $100,000 of money into a school and get $20,000 worth of improvement," Hess says. "Is that a good investment?"