Gazillionaire Oprah Winfrey recently donated $1.5 million dollars to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, GA. I applaud Ms. Winfrey’s commitment to improving educational options, especially for students from low-income families as they tend to get fed the short-end of the stick. There has been a great deal of fanfare around Ms. Winfrey’s donation, as there was this time last year when she sent Ron Clark a check for $365,000. I will admit that I was a bit envious: Of the donation, not the donor. As a staunch advocate of quality education, school choice, and increasing access to the arts, I would have been so gracious that I may have actually broken out in song-and-dance (the sarcasm is back). Seriously, this time last year our organization was nearing the 30-day deadline we were given to raise $1 million dollars if our charter petition was to receive consideration for approval. That’s an entirely different blog in and of itself…Any way, I can truly understand Mr. Clark’s enthusiasm upon receiving that check, but more so the one he received this week. I would like to attempt to explain some of the criticism surrounding Ms. Winfrey’s donation.
First, Ron Clark Academy is a private school, which means not everyone living in the school’s vicinity is afforded the opportunity to attend. As a private school, a limited number of students are able to attend. Furthermore, the ‘cost’ for educating each child is roughly $14,000, almost twice the amount alloted for public school children. I completely understand the school’s leader wanting to give children the best education possible, but I do not believe that it requires more money. Someone with Ron Clark’s connections could just as easily have started a public charter school and still received the same levels of donations and fundings as the private school. Why do I believe this? Well, the first reason is obvious for obvious reasons. Another reason is because Ron Clark was shown how to properly network and raise funds, as he traveled in the ‘right’ circles. For many grassroots educators, it has never been about the money or the recognition for that matter. It has been about giving back to their respective communities, leading by example, giving hope to students who may not otherwise have any or reason to believe they can change their circumstances through education.
Another issue of concern is this image of students singing and dancing all the time. As a lover of the arts, I completely understand the benefits of an arts-based education; however, art should not be limited to rapping. I have often vented about exposing kids to Mozart, Beethoven, or Vivaldi (my favorites). Better yet, why couldn’t the kids go to D.C. and recite a speech by W.E.B. DuBois or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Could they not have performed ‘We Shall Overcome’ or ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing?’ Either selection would have been more appropriate. Why, you ask? Because Blacks are always (or at least 99% of the time) portrayed in commercials singing, dancing, or jive-talkin’ Sadly, that is how many people outside of our race perceive us. I can’t speak for every Black person in America, but I am tired of being stereotyped!
Lastly, I would like to offer my opinion (because I know it only matters to me, no one is going to consult me before making any major donations): There are a lot of kids who could have been served by a $250k donation from Ms. Winfrey. Recently, the Georgia Charter School Commission approved 7 of 21 charter petitions received from organizations. Of the 7 approved, I believe only 2 were submitted by grassroots organizations. What exactly does that mean? It means that management companies stand to make at least $1 million dollars for the first year that each of those other charter schools is in operation. That means approximately $5 million of Georgia tax-payer dollars will leave the state during the 2010-11 school year. As someone who has been unemployed, I know for a fact that if that money remained in Georgia a few more people would be able to return to work next year. Instead, those funds go to CEOs of those organizations, located elsewhere. Many of the grassroots organizers were told that they should seek the services of a management company, as the Commission did not think they were competent enough to handle school operations. If Ms. Winfrey (or some other celebrity) had donated $15K to each of those 14 organizers (non-profit), they could have used those funds to attend training on opening and operating a charter school, offered by the Georgia Charter Schools Association. Then she could have happily donated the remaining funds to the Ron Clark Academy which, by the way, charges for site visits. So much for ‘best practices,’ but I digress.
So what am I really trying to say? Well, in a nutshell: Celebrities, if we are to fix what is wrong with public education, we (the everyday, average Joes & Janes) are going to need your help! Now I know all of you can’t give $1.5 million like Oprah, but giving your time and lending your name (and face) would certainly help bring focus to our educational system. Better yet, the next time you are at the White House rubbing elbows with the Obamas, please tell them that there are everyday educators out here, like Dr. Steve Perry and Baruti Kafele, who are getting things done, sans the fanfare and million dollar donations. I am sure the students at their respective schools could use those funds wisely.