Editor’s Notes

Pub date March 11, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

The week that the San Francisco Unified School District sent out preliminary layoff notices to 535 teachers, the New York Times Magazine devoted much of its special money issue to educational philanthropy. It’s a vicious kind of irony.

The United States heads into a deep recession, but for a new generation of multibillionaires, it’s another gilded age. Fortunes built over the past 15 years or so put the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller to shame, and as the guys from Google recently proved, it’s still going on.

And the tax laws are more favorable to the rich than they have been at any time since the 1920s, so less and less of that greater and greater concentration of wealth is available for public priorities such as education.

But that’s OK, the Times says: Bill and Melinda Gates are giving a lot of money to schools. Something like $350 million a year. Wow! That’s enough to make up for maybe 10 percent of the current cuts to school districts in just the state of California. Thanks, Bill.

I don’t think anyone with the last name of Gates or Buffet reads the Guardian every week, but I bet a copy or two makes its way down the Peninsula to the Googleplex and maybe Oracle headquarters, so I’d like to make a suggestion here to the very rich.

You want to make a difference with your philanthropy? Well, you could start by funding a massive educational campaign to convince Californians that public education works and is valuable, then underwrite a ballot initiative to raise income taxes on people like yourselves. That would do more good, for more kids, for more years into the future than any amount of grantmaking on planet Earth.

But maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe that’s not measurable or accountable enough. Maybe you can’t put the test scores on a computer graph and track the day-to-day impact or your investment the way you can track your stock prices.

So let’s try something else. Maybe you could save one school district.

That’s right: one school district. A big one. Somewhere in urban America. I’d suggest the San Francisco Unified School District in the great state of California, but I’m biased. Just pick a district where the public money falls far short of the educational needs that also has a credible, competent elected school board running things.

And instead of setting up charter schools or building new gyms or concert halls with your name on them, put a big chunk of money — say, $3 billion — in a trust fund that would generate a few hundred million a year, forever. And then let the local school board spend it.

Sure, you’ll get some corruption. Sure, some of the money will be wasted on stupid pet projects or dumb ideas. But that’s going to happen whatever you do. And I would argue that right now, if the San Francisco schools got an additional $300 million a year, no strings attached, on top of the existing state funding, the public schools would improve radically, a generation of kids would be far better prepared for life, the achievement gap would close up a good bit, and there would be quantifiable, measurable progress on every possible metric.

And suddenly, maybe even the tax-averse people of California would realize that well-funded schools are worth paying for.

Sergei? Larry? Anyone?