The Felonious Philanthropist

By Jonathan Weisman — January 01, 1991 7 min read
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Virtually unnoticed, the founder of a philanthropic foundation has been quietly traversing the country over the past several years awarding exemplary educators sizable chunks of cash.

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 either sing its praises or disassociate themselves from it.

The problem is the man handing out the money: convicted felon Michael Milken.

This school year, the Milken Family Foundation, founded by former Wall Street financiers Michael and Lowell Milken, will give 102 teachers and principals in 13 states $25,000 each, with no strings attached.

But 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. On Nov. 21, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Some people 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,’ raises some real questions,” says Chuck Santelli, director of policy and program development for New York State United Teachers.

But the program’s 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,” says Frank 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 almost unheard of in precollegiate education. 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.

“When we were told we were going to get a cash award, the biggest number that came into my mind was $500,” says Deborah Gladding Willard, who received a Milken award in 1988 while teaching history in Glastonbury, Conn. When the educators were told that they would receive $25,000, “they had to pick us all up from under the table,” Willard says.

The first Milken awards for educators went out in 1987 to 12 California teachers and principals. The program spread to Connecticut, Illinois, and Nevada the next year. In 1989, Colorado signed up.

Then word spread more quickly. The program almost tripled in 1990, with Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, and West Virginia signing on. Each state gives out six, eight, 10, or 12 awards, depending on its size. The program aims eventually to be in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, says Julius Lesner, the Milken Foundation’s executive director.

But one state has already said no. Last March, because of Milken’s personal involvement in the awards ceremonies, the New York Board of Regents and the commissioner of education decided not to participate. The NYSUT, the state’s dominant teachers’ union, concurred.

The awards program “is just a forum for [Milken] to vindicate himself,” says Santelli of the union. “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 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,” says Philip of Michigan. “People who amass large fortunes often do so under questionable circumstances.”

He notes that the four Milken foundations—organized in 1982, with a current endowment of $350 million—began their giving long before the brothers ran into legal trouble.

Eliot Wigginton, one of this year’s Georgia recipients and the creator of the renowned Foxfire education program and book series, agrees. “If you want to play that game, you can look at the setting up of foundations anywhere in this country,” he says. “I’d rather not play that game. When a foundation gets established, it takes on a life of its own. It takes on its own identity, its own purpose. The good that they do with it gives that foundation a `good life.”

Educators who have met the former “junk bond” salesman staunchly defend his sincerity and his devotion to education. “He’s a tremendously kind person,” says Roger Morrissette, a past honoree who teaches math at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford, Conn.

Willard, the history teacher, remembers how Milken, at the state’s awards banquet, 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 recalls. “That says something about him and the way he is bringing up his children.”

Meanwhile, critics assert that 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—more than $2.5 million this year—could be more wisely spent on educational projects designed to bring about change. “There is clearly a better use for money than this,” says David Bergholtz, executive director of the George Gund Foundation.

But Milken Foundation officials argue that awards to individuals advance the sweeping ideal behind the program: to attract and retain exemplary educators by bolstering the status of teaching. “If you want good people, you have to pay them; you have to recognize them,” says Lesner. “We’re trying to get everybody to pick up on this to keep the profession from disintegrating.”

He points out that the $4.95 million awarded so far through the program is only a fraction of the $52 million the foundation will have given to education by 1994. “If [other foundations] see a better use, let them spend their money on it,” Lesner says.

Those who have been honored by the program express 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,”’ says Morrissette, who has taught for 52 years. “Let’s face it. Money talks, and now [educators] have a goal to work for.”

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.

Wigginton, who was awarded a five-year, $285,000 MacArthur grant last year, says his Milken award would probably fund “one of those elegant little [Foxfire] projects that always get whacked from the budget.”

More typically, Morrissette used his award to finance his daughter’s senior 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, principal of Crabapple Middle School in Fulton County, Ga., says she would probably use her award to “do something for [her] children that they would never do for themselves.”

The winners are selected through a process determined by the participating states, but it 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 made up of noted educators, union officials, school-board members, and faculty members from schools of education. Most of the participating states try to select a range of recipients representing different grade levels, teaching fields, and ethnic backgrounds.

“We’re not necessarily looking for the best educators, but the people who represent our profession the best,” says Francie Alexander, an associate state superintendent 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.

Despite its complexities and controversies, participating states say they will continue the program as long as the Milken Foundation continues to fund it. For their part, the Milken brothers say they will continue supporting education, regardless of their legal situation.

“You do the best you can do in a complicated world,” says Foxfire’s Wigginton. “You stand for the good stuff, and the good will have out.”

Besides, asks Willard of Connecticut, “Who amongst us wishes to labor unrecognized?”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The Felonious Philanthropist

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