Commentary | Education

Lessons—With This Gift Horse, Take a Very Close Look

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 16, 2002 ]

With this gift horse, take a very close look

By  Richard Rothstein

At a meeting of foundation executives last week, Secretary of Education Rod Paige was asked how school superintendents should handle philanthropists. Dr. Paige replied that they should be more willing to turn away donors whose offers do not advance a district’s own priorities.

Caroline Kennedy should ponder that advice in her new role as the chief fund-raiser of the New York City schools. Some wealthy patrons may care more about making a name for themselves by financing unique projects than about supporting the unglamorous work of operating good schools. The judgment of donors is sometimes wiser than that of school officials, and sometimes not.

Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, has observed that some of what foundations give away is in effect the public’s money. Philanthropists get tax breaks when they endow foundations: for every $10 they donate, government loses about $4 in taxes.

Because foundations give away only about 5 1/2 percent of their assets each year, public institutions would do better in the short run if grants came directly from individuals: for the $4 in lost taxes, schools and other services get foundation grants of 55 cents a year.

This trade-off is worthwhile when a foundation suggests projects that public officials didn’t imagine or for which they could not get political approval to spend public money, or at least spend as much of it as they need to. But it is hard to separate good ideas from foundation proposals that, while seemingly attractive, may be passing fads or only a way to advertise a donor’s virtue.

In New York City, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to break up large high schools into smaller units. The idea is that adolescents need stable relationships with teachers who understand each student’s intellectual and personal problems. Some New York educators already valued small schools and had developed about 100 of them before the Gates Foundation came to call, so private money reinforced a priority that many in the system had already embraced.

But another foundation helped to create the problem that Gates now hopes to solve. Giant high schools were promoted 40 years ago, when the Carnegie Corporation sponsored a campaign by James B. Conant, a former president of Harvard University, to consolidate small high schools. Dr. Conant wanted schools to be large enough to offer both an elite curriculum to students who scored well on standardized tests and a large variety of vocational and less demanding courses to the rest.

Many urban schools were already large before the Carnegie campaign, but the rise of large schools was accelerated by the foundation’s influence.

Only a few years ago, most big donors believed that middle schools needed more attention than high schools. Influential foundations financed training for middle-school teachers to create personalized environments and better instruction.

Have most large foundations now turned their attention elsewhere because middle schools are fixed? Did the Gates Foundation adopt change in high schools because a focus on middle schools was wrong? Or did Gates want to promote its name in a new field rather than play second fiddle to those already working to improve middle schools?

Gates’s small-schools initiative may now be just what is needed, but the foundation’s earlier ventures were flawed. For example, it previously offered a few days of training to every principal in the country, an effort to which states gave matching funds. (Nobody, after all, is against training principals.). Training so brief will have little lasting effect, and took school officials’ scarce time and energy to administer.

Grants for principal and superintendent training are fashionable nowadays. Many foundations believe that executives with private-sector experience have a lot to teach about leadership, and that may often be true.

But not always. One businessman recruited to be a schools superintendent is Joseph Olchefske, in Seattle. Mr. Olchefske recently announced that budgeting errors had led to a $33 million shortfall in district finances. Having professional managers run schools is no guarantee of improvement.

With New York schools pressed for dollars, Caroline Kennedy will seek more gifts from foundations, corporations and individuals. But she will have to siphon fads that might later cause regret, like Carnegie’s comprehensive high schools, from well-thought-out ideas like the Gates emphasis on small schools today.

She will have to ensure that privately supported programs last long enough to make a difference, not only until a foundation’s new trustees or administrators have new (and not necessarily better) ideas about how to fix schools.

Secretary Paige warned last week that too many school officials were “jerked off center” by philanthropists with their own priorities. Ms. Kennedy should try to avoid that.

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