Getting Education Right Is Not Optional by Al Sikes

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A Valentine Day story in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Blackstone CEO Gives High School $25 Million in Hope of Inspiring Others.” The gift was to his public school in Abington, Pa. The donor, Stephen Schwarzman.

The school’s superintendent, Amy Sichel, declared “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.”

The article also noted public school gifts of millions from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, and Hip-hop mogul, Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young; it also stated that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed $6.5 billion to support elementary and secondary education over the years.

While living in New York City, I became active in several organizations that provided millions of dollars to enable charter schools and sustain Catholic schools. I also learned a lesson about the power of immovable objects. At the risk of over-simplification, institutional education is not easily moved.

I would like to believe Amy Sichel’s observation: “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.” Count me a skeptic. Results will require openness to innovation.

Public school education faces a number of irrepressible forces. Popular culture destabilizes. Families are often fractured and unable or unwilling to engage their children to help assure educational success. Plus, there is a ceiling on the revenue side–taxpayer fatigue.

And public leaders in various executive and legislative branches are often too busy tending to re-election issues to collaborate on that most essential public service: the education of our children. Forming truly collaborative initiatives across organization boundaries and making sure they are at least adequately funded is difficult and time-consuming work.

Schwarzman, in giving $25 million, said he hoped to inspire others to give to public schools. While education is a leading cause for many philanthropists, most of the money goes to higher education. The top five college endowments most closely resemble the annual GDPs of small countries. Statistics compiled by US News and World Report reflects the numbers at the end of the fiscal year 2016:

Harvard University (MA) $35,665,743,000
Yale University (CT) $25,413,149,000
Stanford University (CA) $22,398,130,000
Princeton University (NJ) $21,703,500,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $13,181,515,000
University of Pennsylvania $10,715,364,000

The only non-Ivy League schools in the top five are Stanford and MIT—together they attract some of America’s best young scientific and innovative minds.

If you are a development officer at one of the above-noted schools, you relish the fact that each graduating class is likely to produce a relatively large number of adults who will become rich. And on the way, most will send their children to their prep and college alma maters.

The cleavages in education will not go away. But, if America is to have a bright future, public education must get better. There is some light.

The Gates Foundation is concentrating on teacher practice networks “as a model for teachers leading teachers in effective, collaborative opportunities to improve instruction.” Best practices mobility is most likely within, not outside, the institution.

There are almost 6,000 charter schools, and while they have varied successes, the best are innovative and have valuable lessons to pass on.

One of the reasons the US leads the world in higher education is because of competition.

And hopefully, Schwarzman and Gates and others will awaken their peers to the absolute necessity of healthy public schools. But to tap private philanthropy, public schools leaders must develop fundraising skills outside of jockeying for a better cut of tax revenue.

As noted, this is an important and complicated subject that does not submit to easy answers. But, since I’m looking for a concluding paragraph, let me risk oversimplification.

My experience is that students come with their home in their backpack. Unless there is a parent who provides encouragement and help most students will not succeed. If I was a principal or superintendent I would add one class and it would be for the parents.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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