Old Idea, New Setting: Endowed Chairs for Schools

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Endowed chairs in public schools? Endowed with private dollars? Why not?

Consider the facts. Equity questions lead poor school systems to sue their states. Taxpayer groups protest rising school taxes from New York to California. Deteriorating school buildings leave school principals hard-pressed to pay for maintenance on top of rising personnel costs.

As the fiscal pressures on public education have grown, schools have turned to private sources of funding. Corporations, realizing they have a significant stake in the education of their future workforces, have provided money, people, and materials. And local citizens have created educational foundations to channel all kinds of support to the schools.

It's a logical next step to create privately financed endowed chairs for able teachers in grades K-l2. Endowed chairs have been a valued part of higher education since the Middle Ages. In the United States, endowed chairs first appeared, appropriately enough, at the oldest institutions--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and William and Mary.

Endowed chairs have been established, too, in private preparatory schools such as Andover and Exeter. But the idea of endowing academic chairs in public elementary or secondary schools is almost entirely new. With the increasing involvement of the private sector in public education--and the increasing need for financial help--we believe that it is only a matter of time before endowed chairs become part of the public-school landscape.

What form will this well-established university idea take in the public schools? What would a privately endowed chair in fact be like in a public elementary or secondary setting?

In essence, an endowed chair at this level would be permanent private-sector financial support for an individual teacher who has shown unusual promise, financial support that could be used in a wide variety of ways, entirely separate from the teacher's contract. We see three fundamental purposes for the endowed chair: first, to encourage excellence in teaching; second, to nurture practical, in-class research on the part of exceptionally devoted and skillful teachers; and third, to ease the fiscal burden on the taxpayer.

For example, a talented physics teacher could work with future engineers in small- group sessions, his or her salary and class materials provided by a local engineering firm.

Everyone benefits. First, and most important, students benefit because they are ensured access to teachers recognized for their excellence. Indeed, the financial security of the arrangement could provide added flexibility to arrange smaller classes.

Second, teachers obtain an opportunity for prestigious advancement without leaving the classroom. The importance of providing incentives for teachers to remain in the classroom was made clear once again by the 1989 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa "Poll of Teachers' Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." The poll's results revealed that many good teachers have left the profession for reasons such as: inadequate salaries, the low standing of teaching as a profession, lack of financial support for education, lack of rewards for outstanding service, and the difficulty of advancement.

The endowed-chair concept addresses all of these points of dissatisfaction.

Third, school districts benefit--in this era of increasing calls for choice in education--from the prestige, as well as the additional financial leverage, that a chair provides. As more and more parents demand the right to choose their children's schools, and as governments respond, school districts will need the marketing clout that endowed chairs can offer.

And finally, the corporate, foundation, and individual donors themselves would benefit from the enhanced educational environment chairs help create, as well as the immediate tax benefits and recognition that would come with this new form of public charity.

This form of private-public partnership has other, more subtle advantages as well. For example, by creating a permanent link between the donor and the public school, the process that both parties undergo could naturally lead to additional financial support, as well as mentorships, intern hiring programs, equipment donations, sponsorships of school events, guest lectureships, scholarships, and the like. The list is in fact only limited by the imaginations and purses of the people involved.

In addition, the permanency itself of the endowment brings a welcome stability to school systems that must constantly face uncertainties of staffing, funding, and political change.

It is clear that the widespread public outcry for enhanced performance in the public schools is a durable phenomenon. As citizens urge their school systems to improve their delivery of educational services with scarcer taxpayer dollars, the issue of "choice" will only become more important.

The endowed chair surely answers this call from voters and taxpayers. It is elitist, in a positive sense, but the educational hue and cry is increasingly for elitism by another name: excellence. A means for ensuring that excellence--the endowed chair--may help us rise above the slogans and verbal profiteering by actually delivering good teaching in the classroom where it counts.

Endowed chairs in public schools? We think it's time to take a serious look at a new idea for tax-supported education.

Vol. 10, Issue 06, Page 25

Published in Print: October 10, 1990, as Old Idea, New Setting: Endowed Chairs for Schools
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