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Public Schools?

Be wary of a gift that might squash the benefits of public education.

Let's say a billionaire wants to make a multimillion dollar gift to your school or district. Do you:

a) See the long-awaited realization of your greatest educational dreams?

b) Hire a party planner?

c) Say, "No, thank you"?

One could easily sense a curious epidemic of billionaire largesse flowing to some of America's public schools. Although (mumble along robotically everyone) "money has nothing to do with educational quality," a few million bucks could come in awfully handy as you rebuild your music program, pay for field trips, purchase art supplies, or stock every classroom full of high-interest reading books.

But not so fast! The new media-loving philanthropists don't want to help you make the school improvements you have long desired but could not afford. In fact, they diagnose you and your colleagues as the problem and that any former real estate agent, programmer or Enron- executive can run a school better than a licensed administrator. An ex-Marine, convenience store night manager, or freshly graduated Ivy League student with missionary zeal would be superior to an actual teacher. They complain about wasteful public school spending and then invest $125,000 per Teach for America intern even if they are unlikely to teach for long.

To people such as Eli Broad, nothing succeeds quite like ideology. He worships the marketplace and represents the worst aspects of capitalism by seizing public assets such as schools on the cheap. Wave a million-dollar check in front of urban politicians and watch them disband democratically elected school boards and bow to your agenda. Fill school leadership roles with corporate clones and they won't resist turning urban schools into paramilitary test-prep facilities.

We may navigate this new era of "giving" by asking two questions: Would these folks send their own children or grandchildren to their "reinvented" schools? If schools become the playthings of a handful of billionaires, are they still public schools?