Gift Rap

May 01, 2000 4 min read
Rich people compete in the donations-to-
public-schools sweepstakes.

Oh, you rich guys—one of you buys a hockey team, the other has to buy a baseball team. One of you endows a prize at your college alma mater, the other has to spring for a scholarship program. Of course, philanthropy is more complex than that, but there’s no denying that the competitive urge is leading a lot of newly wealthy executives to splurge on charitable gifts that match or exceed those of their gazillionaire peers.

We’ve noticed a new hobby developing among these good fellas: donating money to public K-12 schools. We’re not only talking about the “here, have a computer lab” phenomenon, either: Philanthropists are investing in leadership training for principals, professional development for teachers, and restructuring high schools, among other reform-minded projects. In a sub-trend which has some worried about growing inequality among public schools, wealthy alumni of prestigious public schools are contributing to multimillion-dollar capital-improvement campaigns.

Make no mistake: The bulk of private donations still comes from established, independent foundations like the Lilly Endowment, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. These top foundations each give more than $25 million to K-12 education annually. Yet splashy individual gifts can have a ripple effect in the philanthropic world, which, for good or bad, rivals the fashion industry in its tendency to get swept up in the latest trends. And perhaps lurking among the new school of donors is someone committed enough to be the next Walter Annenberg—the former ambassador and publisher who has given more than $800 million to education since 1993, outspending all other foundations.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation recently issued a warning to philanthropists who dream of dramatically reforming public schools. Its report Can Philanthropy Fix Our Schools? observes that it’s more difficult for wealthy do-gooders to force system-wide reform than to give a single school a boost. “Large school systems don’t want to change,” foundation president Chester Finn says. “They’re like great big rubber bands that struggle to retain their familiar shape even when tugged. There has to be a reason for an institution like this to change . . . not because someone says please.”

Following are recent gifts to public education from philanthropists who are trying to change things anyway.

$350 million

Who: William Gates III, chairman, Microsoft Corp.
When: March 2000
Given to: $150 million to 30 public school districts, to improve teacher quality and access to technology; $100 million to states to provide leadership training for superintendents and principals and promote use of technology; $70 million to teachers for professional development; $30 million to 140 individual schools in Washington state
What for: To help improve elementary and secondary schools across the nation

$100 million

Who: James Barksdale, former president of Netscape
When: February 2000
Given to: The Barksdale Reading Institute at the University of Mississippi, Oxford
What for: Improving Mississippi primary school reading programs to ensure that every child in the state can read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade; money is earmarked to help schools hire reading specialists and experiment with new teaching methods

$100 million

Who: Eli Broad, chairman and CEO, Sun America
When: September 1999
Given to: The Broad Foundation, Los Angeles
What for: Leadership training for superintendents, principals, and staff in urban school systems; governance training to increase “school board competence”

$50 million

Who: Theodore Forstmann, co-founder and senior partner, Forstmann Little & Co.
When: June 1998
Given to: The Children’s Scholarship Fund, New York City
What for: Scholarships that enable low-income students to attend private and parochial K-12 schools

$20 million

Who: Jane Bradley Pettit, philanthropist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
When: December 1998
Given to: The Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School Commission, Milwaukee
What for: Designing and building the Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School, a Milwaukee public high school that will offer state-of-the-art vocational training; construction of the $60 million facility is scheduled to begin later this year

$10 million

Who: George Lucas, filmmaker
When: Since 1991
Given to: The George Lucas Education Foundation, San Rafael, California
What for: Producing and distributing materials that showcase innovative approaches to teaching; products include Learn & Live, a film on model schools that aired on public television in 1999, and an upcoming documentary on teacher training

$3.7 million

Who: Pam Trefler, a former investment banker, and husband Alan Trefler, founder of Pegasystems, Boston, Massachusetts
When: April 1998 through January 2000
Given to: $700, 000 to English High School, and $1 million each to Dorchester, East Boston, and Madison Park Technical high schools
What for: Restructuring (making large schools seem smaller by grouping students into learning clusters)

$1 million

Who: Leonard Riggio, chairman, Barnes and Noble
When: March 1998
Given to: Brooklyn Technical High School, Brooklyn, New York
What for: Building a $10 million endowment for the 75-year-old public school; Riggio and John Catsimatidis, CEO of Red Apple supermarkets, are leading the campaign to raise the rest of the money from fellow alumni

169 acres of land

Who: Russell and Helen Hedlund, former residents of North Dakota who now live in Edina, Minnesota
When: January 2000
Given to: The North Dakota Land Department, Bismarck, North Dakota
What for: The public school trust fund the agency operates that raises money for schools by leasing state property to ranchers

—Samantha Stainburn

Karen L. Abercrombie provided research assistance.