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Private Funding of Public Schools

The Bridgeport Education Reform Fund in all likelihood will mean nothing to most people. But ignoring the fund is a mistake because it is a model that figures to play an increasingly prominent role in the funding of schools in the years ahead in this country. Although the present venue is the largest city in Connecticut, whose schools were taken over by the state in July after the superintendent was fired, the strategy has the potential to spread to other underperforming school districts.

What is troubling is that the $400,000 in the fund has come from wealthy donors who remain anonymous. According to The Wall Street Journal, the probable benefactors are officials from the ZOOM Foundation, which is backed by hedge fund manager Steve Mandel ("Schools Look to Donors," Dec. 23). Because no one knows for certain at this date who the principals are, their agenda remains hidden. In business, opaqueness is common, but it is anathema in education - at least in public schools - because there are almost always strings attached.

Once a precedent of this kind is set, it tends to be repeated. The trouble is that public schools are supposed to be supported by taxes. When they become dependent instead on the infusion of private funding, control inevitably shifts to a handful of powerful insiders, creating a plutocracy, which is the very antithesis of a democracy. I've already written about the outsize influence that the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate exerts on public schools. But these are just the biggest players. What is sure to follow is money from smaller sources.

I receive many e-mails from readers who argue that they have lost patience with efforts to turn around public schools, and therefore welcome efforts from non-educators. They will no doubt applaud the Bridgeport Education Reform Fund. But I see it as an attempt by billionaires to impose their will on one of the most important democratic institutions. To date, the mainstream media have treated philanthropies with great deference. I think they do a grave disservice to the public in this regard.

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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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