NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Philanthrophy Not A Cure

May 30, 2000

Philantropist Walter Annenberg gave $500 million to the nation's public education in 1993 with the ambitious aim of improving American education. Much of the gift was used to fund challenge grants ranging from $10 million to $53 million in the nation's nine largest cities. These Annenberg Challenge programs ended with the 1999-2000 school year.

But case studies of the programs in three cities -- New York, Chicago and Philadelphia -- find that Annenberg didn't accomplish what he had hoped. While students in some schools surely benefited, the systems as a whole were largely unresponsive. The essential idea on which the grants were based -- that public schools lack expertise and that talented and motivated outsiders working with the system can provide it -- ran up against too many obstacles. For example:

  • Four organized groups joined in New York to obtain a grant, but they had so little in common they could not agree on a single reform plan, leaving them without leverage to force systemic reform in a school system already hostile to each group's reform agenda.
  • A coalition of reform groups distributed mini-grants in Chicago with no theme or plan; in some cases, the money competed with 20 other (often contradictory) reform initiatives, frustrating both accountability and any credit for the contribution, especially with other system-wide reforms underway.

Although one group united behind one reform plan in Philadelphia, tracking the money or its impact was impossible because the program essentially was absorbed into a new superintendent's own reform initiative.

Source: Raymond Domanico, Carol Innerst, and Alexander Russo, "Can Philanthropy Fix Our Schools?" April 2000, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1627 K Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006, (202) 223-5452.


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