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Editorial

'Gifted' schools

Public education must be careful when accepting private funding, even for worthy projects.

January 12, 2010

It's natural -- and smart -- for cash-strapped public schools to seek out private financial help. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, though, this raised eyebrows when the help took the form of key employees whose salaries are paid by wealthy benefactors. As The Times has reported, some see a conflict of interest when people who work for the schools receive their paychecks from individuals or groups with their own ideas about public education. So far, the district appears to be handling this merger of public and private resources responsibly. But there's no question that when privately financed reform plays a large and long-term role in public schools, everyone should be a little wary.

Matt Hill, L.A. Unified's administrator in charge of overseeing the district's new policy to allow outside groups to manage new or failing schools, is paid by philanthropist Eli Broad. The Wasserman Foundation provides the salaries for an instructional officer and an advisor on teacher effectiveness. In other words, private money is generously being donated to advance district reforms. But the question educators must continually ask themselves going forward is: At what point do financial gifts begin reshaping public decision-making to fit a private agenda?

Outside entities that pour money into education tend to have a view of reform that favors charter schools (as the Broad and Wasserman foundations do), stiffer curriculum standards, weakened teachers unions and more testing. As much as we often agree with that view, public schools -- which are responsible for using public money wisely and are accountable to voters -- must set their own goals.

One example of private money shaping school reform was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's emphasis over the last decade on smaller schools. Convinced that more intimate schools of 500 students or fewer would boost achievement, the foundation spent $1 billion on this project, prompting a nationwide trend. But when it conducted a study of the results, it found that school size by itself didn’t make a substantial differencedidn’t make a substantial difference in achievement. Small schools are more expensive to run and tend to offer fewer electives, including Advanced Placement classes. There still may be long-term merit to smaller schools when combined with other reforms, but a single philanthropic push had an enormous effect on public schools before the results could be measured.

Even the best-intentioned gifts have a way of shifting behavior. Educators and the public, not individual philanthropists, should set the agenda for schools.

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