Just before the movie, “The Social Network,” hit the theaters, Facebook founder, Mark Zukerberg, gave $100 million for educational reform to the Newark schools. Skeptics of Zukerberg’s donation thought this billionaire was trying to remake himself much in the way that John D. Rockefeller did a century ago  – use every dirty trick to kill your competition, then, when you’ve made your millions, give some of it away to remake your image.

Education appears to be the charity of choice right now. Political moderate Bill Gates has given millions for small high schools and teacher development. Sam Walton’s family supports school choice and vouchers. In Milwaukee, the Helen Bader Foundation leans to the left, the Bradley Foundation to the right. Both have invested in Milwaukee education.

Some of these foundations may have the purest intentions, and they may truly make a positive contribution to education. But we have to ask the question, who should decide what our education looks like? Should we decide this question through a democratic process or leave it up to private foundations with their billions of dollars?

Foundation leaders may believe that their grants can break political logjams and plow through petty special interests. They offer the funding that taxpayers cannot provide. But nonprofit organizations may become beholden to rich benefactors. Public schools may find themselves in the same position.  When a technology company gives a lot of technology to students, will students continue to buy similar technology from the same company? If a company, which has anti-union leanings, gives money to private schools, is it giving money to support nonunion shops?

Of course, if the rich do nothing productive for society with their money, we are going to criticize them mercilessly. The real issue is a question of balance.

When the money being given is simply icing on the cake, schools can decide whether the price of entanglement is too great. But when schools are desperate to maintain even the basics, they may not have the luxury of turning down the money.

School systems around this country are frantically trying to keep their doors open during this Great Recession.  Wisconsin public schools are likely to see additional state aid cuts without the ability of local districts to make up the differences. Grant money from charitable foundations may become harder to turn down even if the strings attached may be pulling a district in a totally different direction, away from the public interest.

Public money is the only way to keep public concerns in our public school system. 

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