Walter H. Annenberg knows one thing that most of us don't need to know: You can't take it with you. Last week, Mr. Annenberg, a billionaire who already has given millions to universities, the United Negro College Fund and the New Jersey private school he attended, opened his checkbook again and donated $500 million to public schools.
Mr. Annenberg is nothing if not unpredictable. A man who made billions from TV Guide now gives a small fortune to institutions that are in trouble in part because kids watch too much television. Moreover, he does it, he says, because he's disturbed about the level of violence in public schools. But the philanthropist does not direct his money to beefing up school security. Instead, the two major recipients of his generosity are reforming education. If schools are working, Mr. Annenberg believes, they will be less violent places.
One of the recipients, the Alexandria, Va.-based New American Schools Development Corporation, is a nonprofit organization established during the Bush administration to fund "break-the-mold" public schools -- schools chosen in stiff national competition that will be held up as national models.
The other already has broken the mold. For a decade, Theodore Sizer's 503-member Coalition of Essential Schools, based at Brown University, has been reforming public secondary schools. visitor to Walbrook High School in Baltimore City, for example, will see flexible scheduling, an emphasis on coaching instead of lecturing, individualized instruction and team teaching. In order to graduate, every student must give a half-hour demonstration of what he or she has learned over the four years.
Mr. Annenberg's gift is the largest ever to education. Some will criticize him for making it to public education, but this is perfectly appropriate. It is designed not to replace operating funds (which should come from taxpayers), but to spur innovation that is badly needed in public education.
It is the most patriotic act in Mr. Annenberg's remarkable history of philanthropy.