How much do private gifts help US public schools?

Public education is joining the roster of favored charitable causes.

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?"

Another concern is that donors may exercise undue influence over school systems, and that large gifts may sharply increase the inequities in the way US education is funded.

Some defenders of the gifts argue, however, that neither fear has any basis in reality. Paul Reville, faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., and executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, says school boards hold their power tenaciously and are unlikely to surrender authority. "That's the beauty of local control," he says.

Also, Professor Reville points out, it's important to understand how small any philanthropic gift is in comparison to overall spending. "If we took all of the philanthropy in the country and put it in one pot, it would run the public schools for about a day or a day and a half," he says.

In response to complaints about the ineffectiveness of some private donations, many say it's unfair to expect private gifts to reach their goals swiftly and efficiently when so many public initiatives fail to do so.

Kay McClenney, vice president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver, says a large number of children's lives have been touched by the Annenberg gift, even as the foundation has worked to sharpen its focus.

"Philanthropists are learners, too," she says. "They have learned a great deal - as all of us have - over the past decade."

Amy Wilkins, principal partner at the Education Trust in Washington, says her group received a large grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, but dropped three of the six communities it sought to help when sufficient progress wasn't made.

That decision was is in no way an admission of failure, she insists. "You don't wait till the 12th grade to give the kid a test to see if he's learning. You test all along and make mid-course corrections in strategy where needed."

As an example of a far-sighted use of funds, some reformers point to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's decision to spend at least $800,000 to support two education initiatives on the Washington State ballot - one promoting charter schools and the other reducing class sizes.

Such a move doesn't offer the donor the immediate thrill of seeing a crumbling school restored or a formerly low-tech classroom suddenly wired with computers, but it may be the wave of philanthropy's future as "an example of a reform-oriented strategy that will have a great impact on the whole state," says Ms. Allen of the Center for Education Reform.

Looking at the Annenberg gift, Reville says he believes it's premature to assess the foundation's legacy. Many of the things it has focused on - for instance, the creation of a network of small schools in New York City - could supply good ideas to public schools for many years to come.

Much of the impact of philanthropy, he says, is determined by the wisdom and discipline of the school system that accepts the dollars. "Philanthropy is a tremendous resource if properly used," he says. "If improperly used, it can be a tremendous distraction."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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