Supporting Schools the Right Way

Apparently a person who has made a lot of money is automatically an expert on education. How else to explain that Bill Gates, as an example, often has more influence on educational policy, reforms and actions than the Secretary of Education or, certainly, teachers, professors and others who have spent their lives studying how children learn.

Well, perhaps it’s not his expertise that’s valued so much as his money, which he uses to promote his educational ideas. Gates, of course, is not alone. Many other millionaires, and otherwise, have been and are using their money to promote their vision of education (and to profit from it), even if that vision is not backed up by educational theory, practice or results.

It’s not just individuals with lots of money who are doing this. The federal government has been doing the same thing at least since “No Child Left Behind” — dangling dollars in front of states and schools to get them to change their educational programs even when state after state, and educator after educator points out that much of what is being supported and mandated, such as dependency on standardized tests, does not work. The emperor has no clothes, but that hardly seems to matter. Money wins out over theory, practice and fact.

Another Way
It doesn’t have to be that way. About two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, made headlines when he announced that he would donate $100 million to the school system of Newark, N.J., to improve its educational program. He did not specify how that money should be used except to improve the education of children, so there was a lot of speculation at the time about how the money would be spent, what Newark would do with it.

An article in the Aug. 29 issue of Education Week, based on an interview with Gregory Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, details how the grant is being used and how choices are being made. But what really caught my eye was the final question asked of Mr. Taylor: “What’s Mark Zuckerberg’s level of involvement at this point?” and Taylor’s response:

“He recognizes that he’s not an educational expert. He is completely hands-off; he has a little company to run called Facebook. We certainly keep him abreast of our work and progress to date, but his involvement is intentionally hands-off, and I admire him for that.

“I know a lot of times people who give donations feel like it entitles them to a level of expertise they may or may not have, and I think he’s very thoughtful about that. He thinks, ‘I’m going to hire educational experts, let them do their jobs, but be clear about the direction that they’re going.’”

What a refreshing idea. Provide needed money to improve education for children and then let people who know what they are doing determine how it ought to be spent. Certainly even those with education knowledge are going to make mistakes, and it’s possible that some of the money will be wasted, but that’s true of any project where an effort is being made to do something a little different, whether it is by schools or by business. Nobody is always right, but when it comes to making the schools better, I’ll stick with people with real knowledge and experience to make the decision, no matter who or what is providing the money.

Too bad that concept hasn’t caught on in Washington, D.C., most state capitals or among the other millionaires who are, fortunately, willing to donate money for such good causes, but who believe, since it’s their money, that makes them experts on how to use it.

Proof That Money Talks
This column was written before the elections so I do not know how Washington’s Initiative 1240, to allow charter schools, fared.

Voters turned down charters in 1996, 2000 and 2004, so why were they being asked to vote on the same proposition in 2012? Because a group of wealthy people — including Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Reed Hastings (all associated with Microsoft) and several others with thousands to spend — believe charter schools are good for education. So they spent more than $2 million just to get enough signatures to put the proposition on the ballot.

It’s possible these “educational experts” really do think that charters can cure the ills of public education, but I wonder if there isn’t another motive. At least one of them sits on the board of a very prominent charter school provider that is likely to profit greatly if Washington allows charter schools.

Should I put two and two together? 

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 “Planner of the Year.” He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."