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Can Private Philanthropy Help Disadvantaged Youth?

Research has underscored time and again the disproportionate role that out-of-school factors play in student achievement. That's why it's encouraging to learn that billionaires Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, and George Soros, the hedge fund manager, have agreed to contribute $30 million apiece from their respective foundations to aid about 315,000 black and Latino young men who have been denied opportunities open to others. The balance of the nearly $130 million earmarked for the program will be paid for by the city ("Bloomberg to Use Own Funds in Plan to Aid Minority Youth," The New York Times, Aug. 4).

Although the program is not aimed solely at education, I'll confine my remarks to that area. Quite properly, Bloomberg and Soros recognize that educational outcomes between blacks and Hispanics and other ethnic groups are cause for deep concern. The question, however, is whether their well intentioned efforts will make a significant difference. The evidence to date has not been encouraging.

I say that because private philanthropy has never been an effective substitute for public policy. Something is terribly wrong when we have to rely on the kindness of billionaires for equitable opportunities. Let's not forget that during the Gilded Age, robber barons were also known for their charitable acts. But in the end, their giving was neutralized by their push for laissez faire. Why will things be different this time?

Nevertheless, it's important to support steps that look beyond the classroom as the root of the academic achievement gap. That's because even the best teachers are not miracle workers. They cannot compensate for the huge deficits that disadvantaged students bring to class through no fault of their own. Perhaps by linking what is learned in school with paid internships, the Bloomberg- Soros plan can engage students in ways other programs have not. When students see a direct link between what they're learning in class and what they hope to do after graduation, they're far less likely to act out or drop out.

What is troubling, however, is that Bloomberg and Soros have not included black and Hispanic young women as beneficiaries of their largess. One explanation offered is that young women from these two ethnic groups are more inclined to complete their schooling and are seen as more trustworthy ("Hope and Doubts Over a City Effort to Aid Black and Latino Men," The New York Times, Aug. 5). But I look forward to a far more satisfactory explanation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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