Commentary | Education

Can $100 Million Change Newark’s Schools?

This piece originally appeared October 5, 2010 in The New York Times.

The growing involvement and influence of private donors in public education, combined with national anti-tax fervor, low marginal rates on high incomes, and a generalized mistrust of government, threatens democratic control of schools.

Wealthy donors have become enamored of charter schools. Initially conceived as experiments to see whether alternate approaches could achieve better results than regular schools with similar public funds, charters are now frequently subsidized by private money. Accumulating research demonstrates that while some charters may excel, charters’ average performance does not seem to surpass that of comparable regular schools. Yet the enthusiasm of the wealthy is unabated.

Public schools need improvement but can also boast of impressive accomplishments. For example, math achievement of African-American elementary and middle school students has improved so much that it now surpasses that of white students only a generation ago.

This impressive performance of regular public schools is unheralded and, in the current fiscal crisis, threatened. Yet private donors, seeking to enhance their own reputations as well as do good, invariably require that their funds be dedicated to identifiable “reform” programs rather than to the ongoing and democratically determined purposes of public school systems. These private demands distort public education goals and can even do great harm.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent more than a billion dollars pressing school districts to break up large high schools into small ones, only to abandon the effort when it became apparent that this “reform,” apparently successful when initiated by education pioneers, fell flat, on average, when imposed large scale. (Four decades earlier, the Carnegie Corporation devoted its philanthropy to pressing districts to convert small high schools into large ones.)

Today, the Gates Foundation is investing in a new reform program — evaluating teachers based on their students’ scores on low-quality and unreliable standardized tests. The National Academy of Sciences, reflecting a clear consensus of national experts, warns against this approach. In time, the Gates Foundation will inevitably abandon it as well, leaving a demoralized and poorer-quality teaching corps in its wake.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates, Sr., father of the Microsoft founder, is engaged in a public initiative campaign in his home state of Washington to impose income taxes on the wealthy. Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, is financing the opposition.

We should reconsider our infatuation with billionaires substituting philanthropy (and their own personal judgment about the public good) for taxes and democratic control. Mark Zuckerberg should join Bill Gates, Sr., Warren Buffett, and several other magnates in supporting higher taxes on the wealthy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zuckerberg should take his $100 million and add it, without restriction, to the New Jersey state treasury, permitting the voters’ elected representatives to determine how it should be spent. Mr. Zuckerberg might keep in mind Maimonides’ advice that charity is superior where donors get no recognition and recipients are unaware of the donors’ identities. Higher marginal tax rates on his wealth would satisfy this condition.

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