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Revealing the Fallacy of White Knight Philanthropic Salvation in an Urban Public School

Anthropologist Amy Brown uncovers the ways race and class are manipulated to raise money at one New York City high school.

A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School, Amy Brown, University of Minnesota Press, 2015

More than a decade ago, New York City’s then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, helped launch a program called Children First, a philanthropic endeavor to pump private money into public schools. In its first year, 2003, $39.9 million was raised.

The money was to be disseminated by an entity called the Fund for Public Schools, and by 2010 its coffers were overflowing: A staggering $250 million had been donated by hedge funds, law firms, corporations and businesses.

(Image: Univ Of Minnesota Press)(Image: Univ Of Minnesota Press)Many people were thrilled. After all, anyone familiar with New York City’s public schools knows that money is desperately needed, especially in low-income neighborhoods like Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; the South Bronx; and the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Corona, Queens, areas beset by overcrowded classrooms, supply shortages and a lack of basics, from books, to desks, to computers.

Years earlier, The New York Times had begun to cover this issue and regularly sent journalists to report on the dire state of most New York City schools. Then, in 2013, the Gray Lady dug more deeply to reveal that kindergarten to eighth grade spending in the state’s poorest districts totaled $287,000 per pupil, while the state’s richest districts spent $1.9 million for the same 13 years.

The blatant disparity sparked outrage.

But is private philanthropy the solution to this inequity? Can outside money change oppressive social structures or does it leave basic inequalities unchecked? Furthermore, does increased funding challenge entrenched assumptions about who is entitled to high-quality instruction?

Brown’s conclusions about philanthropy’s limitations are essential reading for anyone interested in pedagogical reform and racial justice.

Educational anthropologist Amy Brown’s insightful new book, A Good Investment?, probes these questions by zeroing in on one New York City public high school. Brown never names the school she is profiling, but instead calls it the College Preparatory Academy, or College Prep. Similarly, all names – of students, faculty and parents – are disguised. Nonetheless, College Prep, by whatever name, is a real program. Established in 2004, its largely Black student body – 81 percent of 458 students – does well, at least on paper. Ninety-three percent of students graduate, and 97 percent of seniors are accepted by one or more college. Prep also distinguishes itself by running its own in-house nonprofit called The Foundation to solicit funds from Midtown law firms and other potential donors and grant makers.

In many ways, Prep’s work has paid off. Although the program shares its building with two other schools, its on-site gym, library and cafeteria are a boon to students. What’s more, there are working elevators and lockers, as well as a dance studio, a college office, an up-to-date computer lab, multiple copy machines and scanners, and whiteboards and projectors in every room.

For many teachers and students, the facility sounds like a dream come true.

That said, Prep is a place of rules – lots and lots of them. Students are expected, for example, to adhere to a dress code: a white- or blue-collared shirt, black pants or skirt, and black shoes. Hoodies are forbidden, as are sneakers, and students are punished for even the smallest infraction.

Furthermore, Brown writes, every student is expected to follow standards of “professional conduct,” and many of the school’s instructors lower student grades for “unprofessional” behavior. Offenses include failure to pay attention in class, talking out of turn, lateness, swearing and fighting. Not surprisingly, many of the students Brown interviewed expressed overt hatred for the restrictions and rolled their eyes at being given detention or other sanctions for acting their age.

Brown agrees with them – and this is not her only critique of the school. In fact, her analysis of the program’s deficits is grounded in the many years she spent there, first as a teacher and subsequently as a researcher and interviewer. Her account includes both personal reflections and rigorous critical analysis, and while I wish she’d also interviewed donors to the school about their impressions and expectations, her sobering conclusions about philanthropy’s limitations are essential reading for anyone interested in pedagogical reform and racial justice.

To wit: Brown concludes that Prep’s students are never allowed to forget that they have to “enact an acceptable kind of [racialized and classed] performance for an audience.” Who is that audience? Wealthy women and men who typically see themselves as “saving” failing public schools and the “underprivileged” youth who attend them. That the donors are largely white and the students are not, Brown writes, further underscores a problematic racial hierarchy.

A Good Investment? makes clear that philanthropic solutions can’t fix urban education. Only a groundswell of activism can.

As the school tells it, “the greatest threat to students’ education and college matriculation seemed to be their own challenging backgrounds and circumstances. Parents and older community members were absent, serving to reinforce the College Prep narrative of urban teacher and students working together, against all odds, to pull students up by their bootstraps, help them to graduate, and securely set them on the road to achievement in the real world – in this case synonymous with college readiness and a secure place in the middle class.”

Needless to say, this account negates the fact that many of the students at Prep are not from impoverished backgrounds. Likewise, many of them have tremendous parental and community support, and people in their corners who champion their achievements and prod them to excel. In addition, the narrative that’s told fosters the ludicrous assumption that teachers – most of whom are white, upper-middle-class women who did not grow up in New York City – are the sole mentors for students.

Almost everyone at Prep knows that this is untrue. Still, the image of the valiant white knight coming to the rescue of disadvantaged teens of color sells, which is why, Brown believes, it continues to be used. Furthermore, she reports that The Foundation’s annual fundraiser cherry-picks students to showcase, parading them before donors like prize pups. Bold and rambunctious students are never chosen to attend public events – Brown calls them spectacles – because administrators fear that they’ll say something that deviates from the well-worn playbook. Obviously, this takes its toll on the students selected. As one teacher explained, “They choose the same kids over and over again. They’ve gotta sit through those presentations over and over again, and all they keep hearing is, it’s not their hard work that makes a difference, it’s not their parents that make a difference. It’s these white folks who are giving them twenty-five thousand dollars a pop who make their lives possible.”

Not surprisingly, this egregious lie eats away at the self-esteem and confidence of those students who internalize its message.

The school’s racial politics also have a negative impact on teachers of color. According to an instructor Brown calls Mr. Battle – he was one of the few men of color on staff – whenever a professional “poster boy” was needed, he was called into action. This was especially noticeable during his first few years at the school. “I’d say like once a month, there were people from the mayor’s office, judges, prominent lawyers, newspaper reporters. Where do they go? My room. Hung out there. ‘Black science teacher! New York City public school.'”

Worse, photographs of Battle were routinely placed in all bulletins and reports, making him feel like a “prop” in the spectacle. Later, however, when it came time for decision-making, Battle bitterly notes that he was rarely consulted.

This insulting treatment eventually led Battle – along with several other colleagues, both white teachers and teachers of color – to leave the job. Surprisingly, high turnover does not seem to faze Prep’s administrators or rattle donors. In fact, teachers seem to be expected to stay for just a few years before either pursuing doctoral studies or moving on. But while the faces change, the overall messaging does not: “College Prep portrays itself [to funders] as both needy and deserving of the funders’ generosity,” Brown writes. “Students and their families are expected to thank the school for ‘saving’ them and in turn the school thanks the funders who continue to provide.”

It’s an unsavory dance that stereotypes everyone – from students and faculty to parents and communities. Meanwhile, the problems facing urban public schools, most prominently funding disparities and racism, continue to fester. A Good Investment? makes clear that philanthropic solutions can’t fix urban education. Only a groundswell of activism led by parents, students and educators can do that.

Schools like College Prep, Brown concludes, “dehumanize people by making them into commodities” and forcing them to pander to donors to access resources that should be provided to every student in every school. Isn’t it time we fought for a more egalitarian system of public education?

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