What Should We Learn from a Big Gift to a Public High School?

 Photo:  Lissandra Melo/shutterstock

Photo:  Lissandra Melo/shutterstock

A big gift from the Blackstone Group’s CEO and co-founder recently made news as the largest donation to a public high school ever. Stephen Schwarzman’s $25 million gift to Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania will go to renovation and curriculum redesign.

The donation is unusual in its focus on one school, and a traditional public high school to boot. So much of philanthropic support goes to charter schools and networks. When there’s a big gift like this to public schools, it’s noteworthy. 

Donations to traditional public schools are important because most kids are still educated in these schools. Only around 6 percent of all K-12 students attend charter schools, despite the billions that donors have given to back this idea. The limits to scaling charters explains why we're starting to see more major gifts focused on traditional schools: This is where the action is if you really want to improve outcomes for the vast majority of students. 

Schwarzman is not alone in his recent support of public schools. Charles Butt, who runs the HEB grocery store chain, has done a lot recently to support public schools in Texas. Butt put up $100 million for continuing education for public school leaders. That was joined by the $50 million he put toward training Texas public school teachers.

In Los Angeles, Melanie and Richard Lundquist, a couple who owe their fortune to real estate development, put $85 million toward a cohort of 18 schools in the Los Angeles Public School District. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is investing in personalized learning and support for teachers with an eye on reaching students across all types of schools. It's working closely with traditional districts in Rhode Island and elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, in some cities, education innovation funds, like the D.C. Public Education Fund, operate as intermediaries between donors and districts. The funds collect donor money and distribute it across the district. In the case of D.C., funds back pilot programs across the whole system, rather than in a cluster of schools at a time.

That brings us to the other thing that stands out about Schwarzman’s donation: it’s going to just one school. Schwarzman graduated from the school. The gift is reportedly the result of 15 months of talks between Schwarzman and Amy Sichel, the district’s superintendent, who approached him.

Schwarzman announced the gift at national conference of superintendents, where he encouraged attendees to do just what Sichel did—ask. He urged public school leaders to follow the lead of private schools and universities, and hit up wealthy alumni for donations.

Abington Senior High School is not the only alma mater Schwarzman has funded; he gave $150 million to Yale University. His other gifts include $40 million that went to the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition assistance for low-income kids who want to attend Catholic schools, and $100 million to the New York Public Library, where he serves on the board of trustees. He also committed more than $100 million to establish a scholarship for graduate level study in China, at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

While generous, the thing about gifts to universities and museums is that they help the people already doing well enough to have access to those spaces. The pool of people they reach is narrow. Nevertheless, this type of giving remains popular. Schwarzman shines a light on why that is in his advice to superintendents: Higher education and cultural institutions ask wealthy individuals for support.

In that sense, Schwarzman’s advice is worth considering for K-12 leaders looking for more funding. Asking is one way to unlock donors like Schwarzman who would be happy to help, but aren’t seeking out more effective ways to give on their own. We've reported on several public schools that are adept at cultivating affluent alumni, such as the Boston Latin School, which is backed by a nonprofit association that's raised millions from its graduates. This is the kind of model that Schwarzman is advocating.

However, in other ways, Schwarzman’s advice hits at the core of a criticism of private money in public schools. The fear is that when wealthy donors give back to the public schools they attended, it could exacerbate rather than alleviate inequality. Many public schools don't have affluent alumni, and those that do are often not the ones that most urgently need extra help. 

Abington Senior High School is a case in point. It's already considered high performing, according to school district data reported by the Wall Street Journal. Of its students, 86 percent of last year’s graduating class said they would seek out higher education. A quarter of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

In his comments about the gift, Schwarzman said he hoped his support of a public school would be an example to his peers and draw more philanthropic support. That sounds like someone who’s looking to get more involved. It will be interesting to see whether he sticks with what he knows—schools and causes he has personal ties to—or if he branches out into more strategic giving. With $13 billion in assets, Schwarzman could become a potent ally in public education’s corner.