New Wave of Philanthropy Targets Struggling Public Schools

'Today's benefactors - both rich celebrities and average Americans - are giving cash to improve public education.

Like the hungry, orphaned Oliver in the Dickens classic, public schools in America have long been in the position of gingerly asking for more. Now there's growing evidence that private benefactors - from Hollywood's Jerry Seinfeld to average citizens who care about public education - are responding by making the schools their favorite charity case.

While philanthropists have long given to colleges, especially private institutions, more donors are starting to write checks for grade schools and high schools. The new money is enabling schools to build a better library, buy more computers, or invest in teacher training - things they otherwise could not have afforded.

The trend, highlighted by several large, high-profile donations this year, is driven by public schools' demonstrated shortcomings, a strong economy, and even concern about America's future economic competitiveness, experts say.

Research revealing public schooling's shortcomings has attracted philanthropists looking for worthy causes, says Loren Renz at the Foundation Center in New York. Benefactors are looking at the disappointing student performances on achievement tests and thinking about "issues of competitiveness, of where we stand in the global economy - and are we going to produce a [strong] work force," she says. "The fact is, you have high school students who are not able to perform."

Grants to all elementary and secondary schools, which represented 3 percent of US foundation giving in 1980, had grown to account for 8 percent in 1995, says Ms. Renz. Still, it is difficult to determine how many private dollars are flowing to public schools, experts say, because the money is frequently channeled through another type of institution, such as a university center or a community-based nonprofit organization.

But newsmaking headlines this year underscore the growing popularity of giving to schools, particularly in inner cities.

* Last winter, John Malone, chairman and chief executive officer of the nation's largest cable-television company, Tele-Communications Inc., based in Englewood, Colo., said that upon his passing he will endow, with 42 million shares of TCI stock, a foundation dedicated to improving education. In today's market, that would make the foundation's endowment worth about $1.5 billion.

* In May, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation in Boise, Idaho, announced a $110.3 million gift to the state's public schools - the largest foundation donation ever made to a single state.

* In July, comedian Jerry Seinfeld said he would donate the proceeds from his 10-show run on Broadway to two nonprofit organizations in New York that serve public schools, ArtsConnection and Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning (PENCIL). Although the groups do not yet know the size of the gifts from the August shows, PENCIL used the pledge to send children to academic camp this summer, and ArtsConnection plans to bolster its arts-enrichment programs for schools.

The publicity generated by high-profile gifts may help schools by drawing other donations, says Howie Schaffer, a spokesman for the Public Education Network in Washington, the nation's largest network of independent, community-based, school-reform organizations.

IN addition to Mr. Seinfeld, other artists are planning to become champions for schools. The Creative Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group made up of members from the entertainment industry, has made improving elementary and secondary education one of its top priorities this year. In the past, the nonpartisan organization has advocated issues such as arts funding, the environment, and campaign-finance reform.

The coalition is now researching how it can best be of service to the schools, says its president, actor William Baldwin. Members want to focus on helping young people, he says, and the group will aim to "raise awareness and try to effect constructive reform."

Beyond the celebrity rich, others are opening their wallets for schools, too. "The real story is not the contributions coming from wealthy individuals," Mr. Schaffer says, "but the $10 and $15 gifts that come from average Americans." But, he points out, outside money can never substitute for public funding for education. "These private dollars," he says, "will never replace the public responsibility that communities have to support their schools."

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