The $25,000 Question

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Are the Milken brothers handing out money to teachers to honor excellence or to polish a tarnished image?

"We now present the entrance of the educators!" exclaims Giselle Fernandez, co-anchor of the syndicated television program Access Hollywood. It's a Saturday night in June, and Fernandez, looking spectacular in a red satin dress, is hosting the final ceremony of the Milken National Educator Awards, held in the Century Plaza Hotel's Los Angeles Ballroom. One hundred and thirty-eight teachers and principals are about to receive no-strings-attached checks for $25,000, which will be handed to them by either Lowell Milken, president of the Milken Family Foundation, or his brother, Michael Milken, the fallen junk bond king.

After a brief fanfare played by six trumpeters, the winners, grouped by state, enter the cavernous room. Each delegation is led by a high school military cadet holding the state flag, followed by the state's education commissioner or schools superintendent. Fernandez, reading from a TelePrompTer, announces each state as the educators—the men wearing black tie, the women dressed in elegant evening gowns—stream in. With Nick Perito and His Orchestra playing in the background, it's like a cross between a Miss America pageant and a political convention.

The awardees take their seats at assigned dinner tables, and Fernandez turns the program over to comedian Steve Allen, who tells a few jokes and then does a spoof on Larry King Live. (King, who was scheduled to appear, is a no-show.) Allen introduces several other performers, including a ventriloquist and a group of students from Hamilton Academy of Music, a public high school in Los Angeles, who perform a number from "Guys and Dolls."

Everyone seems to agree that the Milkens know how to put on a good show. A few years ago at the awards banquet, singer Michael Jackson thrilled the audience with a surprise appearance. (Jackson, a friend of Michael Milken's, was a Milken Family Foundation board member at the time.) Steve Allen isn't exactly Michael Jackson, but he's funny and charming nonetheless, and the audience members—more than 1,500 teachers, principals, policymakers, and business leaders—respond with enthusiasm.

The Milken Award winners, however, are the real stars tonight, and as the dessert plates are being whisked away, the awardees make their way backstage, where they wait patiently for their moment in the spotlight.

Finally, Fernandez introduces Michael Milken, whom she calls "your co-host and resident visionary!" Milken, dressed in a fashionable shawl-collar tuxedo, introduces members of his own family, including his wife, Lori, and his mother, Fern. The awards, after all, are put on by the Milken Family Foundation, and the Milken brothers like to think of the ceremony and the accompanying three-day education conference as a family affair. Which may explain why Michael Milken proceeds to show slides of himself as a baby and pictures of his wedding. The audience loves it.

Then, at 10:30 p.m., it's time for the main event. "We welcome you to our family this evening," Milken tells the winners. As Fernandez reels off their names, the educators walk onstage one by one, picking up their checks from either Michael or Lowell. The orchestra plays "Climb Every Mountain." Many winners offer hugs and kisses to their benefactors. The whole thing takes 15 minutes. When the checks have all been passed out, the 138 awardees gather around the Milken brothers and wave their prizes in the air while the orchestra plays "Hey, Look Me Over."

A few minutes later, in the lobby, I meet Elvira Largie, an elementary school teacher from Tohatchi, New Mexico, a small town on the Navajo Indian Reservation. She is wearing a traditional Navajo outfit, including beaded deerskin moccasins and turquoise jewelry. She is standing with her husband and two sons, and she is looking around the room for the Milken brothers. "I brought some Navajo rugs that my mother made," she says. "My mother wanted me to give them to Lowell and Michael, to show her gratitude."

Most teachers, even the best ones, spend their entire careers in relative obscurity.

The Milken family, she says, "has touched my life. I feel very honored."

She holds up the envelope that contains her prize. It is still unopened. "In our culture," she says, "we say that when you receive something, you take it and you breathe it in four times. So I'll do that here." She puts the envelope to her mouth, takes four short breaths, then opens it and pulls out the check. She looks at it carefully, as if she still doesn't quite believe it is real.

Most teachers, even the best ones, spend their entire careers in relative obscurity. For those fortunate enough to be honored for their work in the classroom, the awards typically range from a shiny plaque to several thousand dollars. One of the biggest recognition programs is the annual Reader's Digest American Heroes in Education Award. The 10 winners receive $5,000 each, and their schools get an additional $10,000. But even that is small potatoes compared with the Milken National Educator Awards, the Oscars of teaching.

Conceived by the Milken brothers in 1985, the awards were first presented in 1987 to a dozen California teachers. Since then, the Milken Family Foundation, based in an elegant five-story office building in downtown Santa Monica, has given out more than 1,000 $25,000 checks, and the number of states participating in the program has grown to 35.

Winners are selected not by the foundation itself but by committees established by the participating states' departments of education. There is no nomination or application procedure. Awardees, however, must meet at least some of the criteria set by the foundation, including distinguished achievement, outstanding ability, commitment to professional development, and "exemplary and innovative use of education technology in teaching and learning." (The latter, according to foundation literature, is "highly desirable," but in fact many of the winners I met in Los Angeles did not emphasize technology in their schools.) A number of Milken Educators, as they are called, have been honored with other local and national awards.

Most winners are notified by their state education chiefs, sometimes in surprise schoolwide ceremonies. Robert Leathers, principal of Evansville Elementary School near Casper, Wyoming, got a phone call from the district's assistant superintendent. "He said he wanted to talk to me about a special project," Leathers said. "So he came to the school, and we walked down to the school gym. And there everybody was. All the student body, all the principals in the district, the school board, and the state superintendent of schools, who told me I had won. It was very exciting." Like many winners, Leathers had never even heard of the Milken awards.

A handful of winners are notified by Lowell Milken himself, who brings along a video crew to record the stunned looks on their faces. The videos, which resemble the television commercials for the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, are shown repeatedly during the proceedings in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the conference—three days of speeches, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, buffet dinners, and general schmoozing—is a unique part of the Milken awards. The foundation provides free transportation and lodging for all 138 winners, who may bring along one guest (usually a husband or wife). The Milkens even rent tuxedos for each male winner to wear at the awards banquet. (The women, however, must fend for themselves.)

It's a rare chance for classroom teachers to exchange ideas with colleagues and to rub elbows with politicians and policymakers.

A number of past winners also attend, along with various state legislators, education experts, and business leaders. It's a rare chance for classroom teachers to exchange ideas with colleagues and to rub elbows with politicians and policymakers. Last summer's speakers included former U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp, technology guru George Gilder, MCI Communications Corp. Chairman Bert Roberts, and West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood. Previous guests have included U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, and a number of well-known scholars, including Howard Gardner, Arthur Levine, Henry Levin, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Larry Cuban.

"It's the best conference I've ever been to," said 1995 Milken winner Doug Lundberg, a biology teacher at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "Teachers are not accustomed to first-class treatment, and this was first-class all the way."

Even the setting is four-star. The elegant Century Plaza Hotel, where rooms start at $165 a night, has long been the preferred hotel of presidents visiting Los Angeles, a fact not lost on the Milken awardees. For teachers who are used to staying at Holiday Inns, spending four nights in such splendor is a bit like Cinderella attending the royal ball. "I didn't know people lived like this," one teacher told me as she eyed the lobby, with its white marble columns. "I've seen it in movies, but I've never lived it."

The glitz is all part of the Milkens' calculated strategy to elevate the status of teachers and principals by treating educators as true professionals. "I really think that when you say to someone that they're important," Lowell Milken said, "and that they have the most important job in the country, you also have to treat them in that fashion." From the start, the Milkens wanted their awards to make a splash, even if it meant upping the ante in the prize department. "We wanted to attach something significant in terms of the financial amount," he said, "because, unfortunately in America, if you don't attach a large financial number to something, a lot of people don't pay attention."

It's hard not to be impressed by what the Milkens are doing for exemplary teachers and principals. All the educators I met in Los Angeles were thrilled to have won $25,000, but they seemed even more excited about the conference itself. "What it does is kind of elevate your thoughts about what you're doing," Edward Silver Jr., an elementary school teacher from Millington, Maryland, told me. "It just gets you excited about doing some things that you haven't done before. I feel more motivated."

Still, I figured at least some of the winners would be skeptical of the Milkens' motives. More than a few critics have wondered if Michael Milken, a convicted felon, uses the awards program as a forum to vindicate himself.

The Milken name certainly carries a lot of baggage. Back in the go-go '80s, Michael was a junk bond king who controlled a vast financial empire from his X-shaped trading desk at the Beverly Hills office of Drexel Burnham Lambert. He created an entirely new capital market out of high-risk, high-yield bonds, earning huge amounts of money for himself—$294 million one year, $550 million another—and his clients. Lowell, a tax lawyer, was the loyal younger brother, brought in by Michael to advise him on tax matters and to manage his assets and those of the other traders. If Michael was the financial genius, Lowell was the hatchet man, "the technician with the green eyeshade, the administrator of the empire," as Connie Bruck described him in her 1988 book The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders.

At the height of his power, Michael Milken would host the annual Drexel High-Yield Bond Conference—known informally as the Predators' Ball—at either the Beverly Hilton Hotel or the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. At these legendary affairs, Milken would preach the gospel of junk bonds to the invited guests—bankers, lawyers, money managers, corporate raiders, and the like. On the last night, Milken would throw a gala dinner and show for all 1,500 guests at the nearby Century Plaza Hotel, in the very same ballroom where he now hosts the educator awards. One year, Frank Sinatra was the surprise entertainer; another year, Diana Ross dazzled the crowd. Milken, however, was always the main attraction. To his followers, he was "the king."

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