$25,000 Bonuses for Exemplary Teachers Include One String--Their Donor, Milken
Virtually unnoticed by national leaders in education, the founder of a philanthropic foundation has been quietly traversing the country over the past several years to recognize exemplary educators by handing them sizable cash awards.
Teacher-recognition programs are nothing new, and normally the involvement of such a philanthropist would win nothing but plaudits. But the relatively few educators who know about this effort have lined up either to sing its praises or disassociate themselves from it.
The problem is the man handing out the checks: the convicted felon Michael Milken.
This year, the Milken Family Foundations, founded by the former Wall Street financiers Michael and Lowell Milken, will give 102 exemplary teachers and principals in 13 states $25,000 each, with no strings attached.
The brothers were indicted in 1989 on charges of violating federal securities and tax laws. All charges were dropped against Lowell Milken as part of a plea bargain last spring in which Michael Milken pleaded guilty to some of the charges. He now faces up to 28 years in prison. Sentencing hearings currently are under way in New York City.
Some critics of the program question the probity of accepting funds designed to recognize excellence in education from such a philanthropy.
"That exemplary teachers could be proud of this [award] and go back to their classrooms saying, 'I got all this money from Michael Milken,' that raises some real questions," said Chuck Santelli, director of policy and program development for New York State United Teachers/American Federation of Teachers. His state has declined to participate in the program.
Others have voiced reservations about the sheer size of the grants. They argue that no selection process for such awards could be completely fair and that the money could be more wisely spent on cash-starved education programs.
But its defenders insist that teacher recognition is a worthy cause, and that the value of such a lucrative honor far outweighs any potential taint.
"It's obviously a controversial topic as to where the money is coming from," said Frank S. Philip, coordinator of the awards program in Michigan. "But when one weighs off the advantages and disadvantages and the ability to do good with the money, it makes sense to participate."
The size of the awards, and the lack of stipulations on how they should be spent, are unheard of in precollegiate education, educators and philanthropists agree.
Most other teacher-recognition awards involve at most a few hundred dollars, according to Mary Leonard, director of precollegiate education for the Council on Foundations, who said she knew almost nothing about the Milken program.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation every year awards condition-free "genius grants" of hundreds of thousands of dollars to unsuspecting individuals, but those only rarely go to precollegiate educators and are not specifically a recognition of the field.
The Reader's Digest "American Heroes in Education" program may come closest to the Milken program. It awards $5,000 with no strings attached to 10 educators across the country, with another $10,000 earmarked specifically for their schools, said Beth Jones, a spokesman for the magazine who also had not heard of the Milken grants.
Recipients themselves report being astounded.
"When we were told we were going to get a cash award, the biggest number that came into my mind was $500," said Deborah Gladding Willard, who received a Milken award in 1988 while teaching history at Glastonbury (Conn.) High School. "Then [Gerald N. Tirozzi, state commissioner of education] said $25,000, and they had to pick us all up from under the table."
The first Milken awards for educators went out in 1987 to 12 California teachers and principals. Through word of mouth the program spread to Connecticut, Illinois, and Nevada the next year. In 1989, Colorado joined the program.
Then word spread more quickly. The program almost tripled this year, with Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, and West Virginia signing on. Each state gives out 6, 8, 10, or 12 awards, depending on its size, and the program aims eventually to be in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to Julius Lesner, the Milken foundations' executive director.
But one state already has said no to the program.
Last March, because of Mr. Milken's personal involvement in the awards ceremonies, the New York Board of Regents and the commissioner of education decided not to participate, said Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the state education department.
The state teachers' union concurred.
The awards program "is just a forum for [Mr. Milken] to vindicate himself," Mr. Santelli said. "The decision had nothing to do with whether teachers should be recognized. It had to do with whether they should be taking money from a man of such questionable character."
That question arose repeatedly among decisionmakers in the eight states that joined the program last spring, just as Michael Milken was entering his guilty plea. But their answer was different.
No one hesitates to take money from other foundations endowed by wealthy families who "have not been the best Boy Scouts either," said Mr. Philip of Michigan.
"The Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and right down the line," he said. "People who amass large fortunes often do so under questionable circumstances."
He added that the four Milken foundations--organized in 1982, with endowments now totaling more than $350 million--began their giving long before the brothers ran into legal trouble.
Eliot Wigginton, one of this year's recipients from Georgia and the creator of the renowned "Foxfire" education program and book series, agreed.
"If you want to play that game, you can look at the setting up of foundations anywhere in this country," he said. "I'd rather not play that game, turning over every flat rock to see what's underneath."
"When a foundation gets established, it takes on a life of its own,'' he said. "It takes on its own identity, its own purpose. The good that they do with it gives that foundation a 'good life,"' regardless of the behavior of its founders.
However, Mr. Santelli countered, this foundation's founder has personally taken part in the process and the award ceremonies.
New York State would certainly accept grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the state teachers'-union official said, but "would we have taken money from Andrew Carnegie if he were alive? I don't think so."
Hawaii education officials also had debated whether to join the program, but were reassured by a California attorney general's investiga3that found nothing improper about the Milken foundations or their endowments, said Gael Mustapha, a Hawaii Department of Education spokesman.
That nine-month investigation, completed in August 1989, was prompted by allegations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 1988 that foundation officers and directors had used foundation money for their own gain.
Controversy about Michael Milken's philanthropy has plagued him since his indictment. Last May, when he dropped by P.S. 92 in New York City's Harlem to teach a math class, teachers at the school openly questioned his presence, saying he was not a proper role model for children.
The resulting furor led Joseph A. Fernandez, chancellor of the New York City schools, to consider barew gifts from Mr. Milken, who has aided a number of projects in the district. That issue is still under review, said Robert Terte, a school-system spokesman.
The Milken foundations have pledged more than $2 million through 1994 for a private-sector mentorship program in the city's schools, according to Mr. Lesner. Another $300,000 has gone to a summer education program in Harlem, he said, and additional funds have been provided for two college-scholarship programs.
Those who have met Mr. Milken staunchly defend his sincerity and his devotion to education.
"He's a tremendously kind person," said Roger Morrissette, a past honoree who teaches math at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford, Conn. Rather than spurn Mr. Milken's offers to teach, Mr. Morrissette said he would hold him to a promised team-teaching session, and he expressed hope that U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood would not sentence the financier to prison.
Ms. Willard, the Connecticut history teacher, remembering Mr. Milken as shy and "genuine," tells the story of that state's awards banquet, when the former "junk bond" salesman collected the signatures of all the recipients for his son.
"He had promised his son he would bring back the signatures of very important people," she recalled. "That says something about him and the way he is bringing up his children. He is bright, energetic, and committed to public service."
Meanwhile, critics assert that Mr. Milken's notoriety has diverted attention from legitimate concerns about the awards themselves.
They argue, for example, that it is difficult to devise a selection process sufficiently fair to warrant such large grants.
They also suggest that the money being distributed through the awards--more than $2.5 million this year--could be more wiselyon specific educational projects. If the program were to be enacted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the Milken foundations would be spending more than $10 million a year on the awards, these critics point out.
"There is clearly a better use for money than this," said David Bergholtz, executive director of the George Gunn Foundation in Cleveland. "If you wanted to spend $10 million strategically, you would concentrate it around schools in the most distress where you could really lever that money to bring about change."
But Milken officials argue that awards to individuals advance the sweeping ideal behind the program: to attract and retain exemplary educators by bolstering the status of the teaching profession.
Americans "often recognize [educators] verbally with a pat on the back, but we don't do what all other professions do," Mr. Lesner, of the foundations, said. "If you want good people, you have to pay them; you have to recognize them. We're trying to get everybody to pick up on this to keep the profession from disintegrating."
Mr. Lesner pointed out that the $4.95 million awarded so far through the program is only a fraction of the $52 million the foundations will have given to education by 1994, including drug- and civic-education programs, libraries, and minority scholarships.
"If [other foundations] see a better use, let them spend their money on it," he said. "We give to over 600 other charities. This is just one of them."
Lynn Cornett, vice president of states services for the Southern Regional Education Board, said that while it could not be determined that teacher recognition awards do indeed elevate the profession's status, their importance should not be underestimated.
The Milken program, she said, "is recognizing excellence, and any time you do that, it's important."
Program participants expressed no doubt as to its overall effect.
"In all my life of teaching, this is the first time I have been awarded with anything besides, 'Thank you so much, Roger. Let's hear some applause for Roger,"' said Mr. Morrissette, who has been teaching for 52 years. "Let's face it. Money talks, and now [educators] have a goal to work for."
Added Kathy Frega, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education: "These people feel special. The viewers of television, the readers of newspapers know they're special. Suddenly parents want their children to be teachers. It really does make a difference."
Foundation officials say they do not track the use of the grants, and that to do so would defeat the program's purpose. From what they have heard, however, the majority of the money goes toward long-deferred personal expenditures, but much also goes back into education, whether for the recipients' children or their students.
One teacher in Illinois took her entire class to a "space camp" program in Huntsville, Ala.
Mr. Wigginton, who was awarded a five-year, $285,000 MacArthur grant last year, said his Milken award would probably fund "one of those elegant little [Foxfire] projects that always get whacked from the budget."
More typically, Mr. Morrissette used his award to finance his daughsenior year in college and to pay off the debts on the computer and wheelchair that allow his son with cerebral palsy to communicate and move.
Doris Robertson, the principal of Crabapple Middle School in Fulton County, Ga., said she would probably use her award to "do something for [her] children that they would never do for themselves."
'Stand for the Good Stuff'
The selection process is determined by the participating states, but is basically the same for all of them. Names are drawn from a large bank of educators who have already been recognized by other state programs.
Their histories are reviewed by a committee of superintendents, past awardees, curriculum experts, union officials, school-board members, and faculty members from schools of education. The committee selects about 70 candidates whose references are then contacted. Officials in most of the participating states say they try to select a range of recipients representing different grade levels, teaching fields, ethnic backgrounds, and geographic locations.
"We're not necessarily looking for the best educators, but the people who represent our profession the best," explained Francie Alexander, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment in California.
The final choices are approved by the state school chief, who notifies the winners. The educators themselves have no idea they have been under consideration.
Ms. Alexander said her state's selection process was carefully designed and is meticulously implemented, using standardized questionnaires and disinterested officials to make the choices.
Despite its complexities and controversies, participating states say they will continue the program as long as Michael and Lowell Milken continue to fund it.
For their part, the brothers have said they will continue supporting education, regardless of their legal situation, and foundation officials said they are already entertaining more state requests for expansion than they can handle in one year.
"You do the best you can do in a complicated world," Mr. Wigginton, the Georgia educator, said. "You stand for the good stuff, and the good will have out."
Besides, asked Ms. Willard of Connecticut, "Who amongst us wishes to labor unrecognized?"