Magazine article USA TODAY

PHILANTHROPHY Is Revolutionizing Education

Magazine article USA TODAY

PHILANTHROPHY Is Revolutionizing Education

Article excerpt

Philanthropists are providing a different approach to educational reform through a system of private vouchers that offer scholarship aid to poor families.

THE POWER of memory is central, not just to the life of a person, but to the life of a people. In his short story, "Children of the Alley," Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz writes, "Good examples would not be wasted on our alley were it not afflicted with forgetfulness. But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley." It is not just national forgetfulness that plagues the discussion of education reform, it is that most people have implicitly bought into a version of history that narrowly limits the debate and thus limits their ability to question, in any fundamental sense, the status quo.

This version holds that America was founded on public education, that education was not widely available before the introduction of public schools, that the U.S.'s government-run system is responsible for widespread literacy and universal school attendance, and that this system is as American as the Constitution, the flag, and democracy.

All four statements are widely accepted as conventional wisdom. To challenge them is considered, at best, silly and, at worst, sinister--even un-American. No wonder it is so painful to conclude that they are untrue. Nevertheless, it is profoundly important to do so. As novelist George Orwell once observed, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.

Today, when we speak of reforming public education, the premise is that education should be delivered through a government system that solves problems through programmatic repairs. In this context, philanthropy is channeled toward supplementing system administration (the mentoring advocated by groups such as America's Promise); supplementing system supplies (the software and computers donated by corporations like Oracle and Microsoft); and supplementing system funding (Walter Annenberg's dramatic gift of $500,000,000 to the public schools).

Despite the best intentions and generous impulses of their sponsors, these measures are powerless to affect the chronic weaknesses of public education--such as the lack of accountability, stagnating test scores, and spiraling costs--that are so obvious and well-documented that there is no need to dwell on them here.

Of course, no one blames philanthropists for failing to solve the problems of American education. No one really ever expected that they would because no one really ever expected that they could. I believe that they can, and, unless we are prepared to resign ourselves to the gridlock and vested interests that currently paralyze political reform of education, I believe that they must.

We have to stop viewing philanthropy in education as the application of Band-Aids to an injured system. We must be willing to question whether there isn't some underlying flaw in the system that causes it to remain in continual crisis. Then, we must be willing to apply philanthropy strategically to leverage change.

After all, philanthropy provided the original leverage that led to America's adoption of government schooling. In Market Education: The Unknown History, Andrew Coulson describes how the Common School movement of the mid 19th century grew out of philanthropic beginnings. So-called "free schools" were among a diverse range of education options that met the needs of most families. In cities, they supplemented an established network of independent education providers. Competition kept fees low and quality high, since parents would not voluntarily patronize a teacher they thought was unfit or a school they thought was wasteful or overpriced. Rural areas had small, semi-public "district" schools, where a mix of tuition and local taxes let the poorest students attend for free.

Historian Robert Seybolt describes how what had begun as fairly basic instruction quickly evolved into more serious academic training: "Popular demands, and the element of competition, forced [educators] not only to add new courses of instruction, but constantly to improve their methods and techniques of instruction. …

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