City Journal editor Brian Anderson and senior fellow Jason Riley discuss the history of private philanthropists funding high-quality educational opportunities aimed at African-Americans and the poor.​

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: The 34 schools of the Success Academy Charter Network are among the highest performing public schools in New York City.  Success students score in the top 1% in math and the top 3% in reading on statewide, standardized tests.  These schools operate free from any of the bureaucratic rules that govern traditional public schools.  And they have excelled, especially in educating New York’s poorest kids, many of them African-American.  Today on the 10 Blocks Podcast we’ll discuss what role philanthropy has played historically in improving educational opportunities for African-Americans.  Joining us today is Jason Riley.  He is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, as well as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a commentator for Fox News.  Jason’s new City Journal article, “Philanthropy and the Education of Blacks” highlights the noble history of wealthy American donors who have helped children from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their life chances.  Thanks so much for joining me, Jason.

Jason L. Riley: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: We often think of wealthy people who give their money away as being generous and kindhearted, yet many of the philanthropists who have donated money and time to improve the education of the underprivileged are often accused of having ulterior motives.  Why do you think that is?

Jason L. Riley: Well it largely depends on who is doing the accusing.  Often the accusers themselves have ulterior motives.  I think that can be shown historically when you talk about the Rockefeller family or the Carnegies, or oil barons or, you know, supermarket barons, Wanamaker and so forth, all of whom played a role in educating blacks after reconstruction were accused of many things.  You know, that their charitable giving was just really about tax deductions, they didn’t really have the best interest of the children or blacks in mind.  Today you get those same arguments being made that hedge fund managers and so forth just want to burnish their negative image in the media, or that they want to privatize public schools.  All kinds of accusations are thrown at them.  And I think in the past, you know, a lot of people doing the accusing did not have the best interest of blacks at heart.  Back then, of course, it was a very different era.  You had people who just didn’t want blacks educated.  They thought that blacks would be less subservient, that they would be competitors in the marketplace with whites, and so they wanted blacks to stay ignorant.  Today you have a different set of arguments, I think, against education philanthropy, and that has to do with who controls public education right now.  And that is largely the teachers unions and they see education philanthropists as a threat to their monopoly.  So depending on the era that you’re talking about, that plays a role in where these arguments are coming from.

Brian Anderson: Adjusting for inflation, federal spending on education has increased something like 375% since 1970, yet it hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference, all of this extra money.  American students lag far behind those in many other developed countries in reading and math.  What’s not working, in your view, in the traditional public school system?

Jason L. Riley: Well, it’s not a system run with the interest of the children foremost in mind.  Public education is seen by the people who control it as, first and foremost, a jobs program for adults.  That’s why bad schools stay open and educate children generation after generation.  They are still providing jobs.  And that is what the people who run public education are primarily interested in.  If you look at the rules that govern who can teach, how quickly that teacher gets a job for life, who gets fired first when cutbacks are made in public education.  These decisions are not made with the interests of the child in mind, they are job protections that the unions have fought for.  So in terms of spending it’s clear that with public education I believe the federal government spends around $600 billion dollars a year on public education.  It’s not a resources issues, the issue is how that money gets spent, who controls where it goes, and that’s what the real fight is about.

Brian Anderson: So when philanthropists give to charter schools they are expecting that something is going to be done differently than in the traditional public schools.  What would that difference be?

Jason L. Riley: Well, they know that charter schools can operate outside of the work rules of the traditional education system.  They can adapt to the needs of their children, they can have a longer school day or a longer schoolyear, for instance.  They can use different curriculum depending on what’s needed in the student body.  But what they see in terms of – that makes charter schools advantageous versus throwing more money into the public education system – is the adaptability of these schools.  And it’s also interesting when you look at who gives, and different people give for different reasons, but one big source of giving is Silicon Valley.  And I remember interviewing Reed Hastings, the editor who started Netflix, about why he gives and why he thinks so many of his colleagues in Silicon Valley are interested in public charter schools.  And he said well a lot of us didn’t come from a lot of money.  We didn’t come from the Patrician class.  We were educated in public schools.  We believe in public schools.  And we don’t see the system doing for children today what it did for us, and that bothers us.  And I think that’s why so many of us out here are interested in public education or public education alternatives.  And I thought it was a very interesting answer.  The hedge fund managers back east in New York, I think some may be giving for the same reason, but others, I think, just see a system that doesn’t work and money going to waste.  And a lot of hedge fund managers, that’s what they do for a living.  They look at companies and see…

Brian Anderson: Looking for value.

Jason L. Riley: …cut the fat, efficiencies, and so forth.  And they see a hugely inefficient public education system.

Brian Anderson: You go through, in your essay, the history of philanthropy in black education and it covers some staggering statistics, including an 1850 census that shows that nearly half of the 500,000 free blacks of that era and nearly 5% of the four million slaves could actually read and write.  You also note that two generations after emancipation, a majority of blacks were literate.  What went off track in the post-Civil War period?  Or was it more recently?

Jason L. Riley: Yeah, I would argue that things started to go off track in the second half of the twentieth century, primarily.  What was amazing about the first half of the twentieth century is what blacks were able to accomplish given their conditions, and given the law of the land in terms of how they could be treated in society, but the history is absolutely fascinating.  The way that blacks left bondage and set about educating themselves.  Actually, it’s even more interesting when you look at how blacks attempted to educate themselves while still in bondage and what they sacrificed to become literate.  In some southern states it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write, and many blacks risked life and limb in order to learn so anyway.  Free blacks would try and teach enslaved blacks how to read.  Often whites would try and teach slaves how to read.  And I mean there are stories that just really break your heart.  When you look at what goes on today in terms of the value of education and many black ghettos, kids who are teased for being academically inclined, for raising their hand in class, for being bookish, accused of acting white, and you look back at what blacks went through to become educated and it really does break your heart, the change in attitude.

Brian Anderson: One of the figures you profile in your essay is Julius Rosenwald.  Can you say a little about him?

Jason L. Riley: Julius Rosenwald was a German Jewish immigrant, or a descendant, I should say, of German Jewish immigrants from the Midwest.  And he originally came from Illinois and made his fortune with Sears, Roebuck, which was the nation’s largest realtor back then.  See it was sort of the Walmart of its day.  And then turned his attention to philanthropy, first Jewish philanthropies in the north, but then he came across Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery,” which was written at the turn of the twentieth century in 1901, I believe, it was published.  And it sort of enlightened Rosenwald about the condition of blacks, particularly in the south.  And he thought that Booker T. Washington, in terms of his attempts to educate blacks, was on to something, and so he wanted to help out.  Now, Rosenwald was not a pioneer in any sense.  As I said, you had Carnegie, you had Rockefeller, you had others playing in the space already, but Rosenwald did something quite unique and lasting.  And that is he teamed up with Booker T. Washington to set up elementary schools in the rural south after reconstruction.  And that was a very, very tough period.  After the federal troops left the south, white supremacy started to set in, and that was the beginning of the Jim Crow era.  And funding for black schools dried up remarkably.  And Booker T. Washington was down there.  He saw this happening, he saw this evolving, and he went north looking for philanthropists to help educate blacks and he teamed up with Julius Rosenwald and they set about starting a handful, first a handful, of elementary schools in rural Alabama and it was a matching grant program.  Rosenwald just didn’t want to give the money away.  He wanted the community to have a stake in these schools and that also fit with the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was into self-help, so the communities that received the money had to come up with a portion of the money, work to build the school and so forth, and then Rosenwald would match that amount.  And it started off with a handful.  By the time they were done twenty years later, some 5,300 schools had been built throughout the south and it was quite a remarkable achievement.  There was a study done a few years back by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, I believe, and it found – it measured the extent to which the Rosenwald schools had shrunk the learning gap of blacks in the south, where of course most blacks lived.  And inside of a generation it went from around four years to less than a year, which is comparable to what it was in the north, so this was a remarkable, remarkable achievement by Rosenwald.

Brian Anderson: A more contemporary figure you discuss in the piece is John Paulson.  In a way he is trying to do something similar in today’s education environment, right?

Jason L. Riley: Absolutely.  He’s funded one of the most successful charter networks in the country, frankly.  A network that is again closing the learning gap in the tradition of Julius Rosenwald and others in schools – you look at the Harlem Success Charter Network, which Paulson gave a bunch of money to recently, and the black kids in that school are not merely outperforming other black kids in traditional public schools, many of them are outperforming children in white suburbs, some of the wealthiest white suburbs in the country, showing that it really is the system and not the kids.  That these children can be educated, we know how to do it, we have successful models for doing so, we have people willing to set up schools in these neighborhoods, but that there is an education establishment that is resisting them, not because these models don’t work but because the establishment has its own agenda.

Brian Anderson: Jason, in your own career you have been very interested in education policy.  What drives that interest for you?  Is there a personal dimension to it or is this just something you have grown to be interested in over time?

Jason L. Riley: Well, yes, there’s a personal dimension to it.  I think I – my parents valued education growing up.  They made sure that I valued it.  But traditionally, if you look at black history, it has been the key to upward mobility.  The progress that blacks were making in the first half of the twentieth century in terms of increasing their years of education, both in absolute terms and relative to whites, was quite remarkable.  The pace at which blacks were entering skilled professions in the first half of the twentieth century and so forth, and we know that that increases earnings and that there are other many positive social outcomes to getting a decent education.  You know, our jails and prisons are not full of college graduates.  And so education has traditionally been very, very important in this country and that’s one of the reasons it has been such a focus of my professional life.

Brian Anderson: Don’t forget to check out Jason Riley’s new article “Philanthropy and the Education of Blacks,” on our website,, and in our Summer issue.  You can also find him on Twitter, @JasonRileyWSJ.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal, with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thank you again, Jason, for joining me.

Jason L. Riley: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: Steve Debenport/iStock

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