Funding for renovations at Abington Senior High School prompts many questions
To the Editor:
On Nov. 2, the Abington School Board and the outgoing superintendent of schools, Dr. Amy Sichel, hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Steven A. Schwarzman Center for Science and Technology to be built at Abington Senior High School. This new addition to the high school is intended to improve the science, technology and math facilities at the school while also expanding the overall footprint of the school to accommodate ninth-graders, who currently attend Abington’s junior high school.
While Abington students will undoubtedly benefit from up-to-date classrooms and improved technology, few of them realize that they are the subject of a radical experiment in public school education.
On June 1, the Abington School Board entered into a multimillion dollar pledge agreement with the Stephen A. Schwarzman Foundation, a charitable organization founded by multibillionaire Abington Senior High School alumnus Stephen Schwarzman. While initially announced in February with great fanfare as a precedent-setting gift from a private individual to a public school system, over the ensuing weeks, it became clear that this gift was arranged in a questionably secretive process — arguably in violation of Pennsylvania’s public disclosure laws which require transparency in such matters — and that the terms of the gift itself contained some troubling details.
While these terms are too numerous even to summarize here, the $25 million gift will not, despite the wishful thinking of Abington residents, relieve any resident’s tax burden. On the contrary, this gift simply increased the budget for a long-planned science wing at the high school by exactly $25 million to approximately $100 million. These additional funds will provide certain benefits to Abington School District students, to be sure, but these are add-ons, bell-andwhistle enhancements to a project long in the works.
In return, Schwarzman received a swag bag of goodies, including naming rights for his former track coach and two of his teammates in the school’s athletic center, naming rights for the new wing itself and so on. But most disturbingly, Schwarzman asked for — and received — a provision in the pledge agreement that will result in mandatory computer classes for all ASD students starting in seventh grade. In short, a private individual who is neither an Abington taxpayer, parent nor educator purchased the rights to a school district’s most fundamental decision: what to teach its students.
During the noisy public debate that ensued, Superintendent Sichel and various school board members made many troubling statements as they attempted to justify both the process and the substance of the Schwarzman donation. One of the most troubling of these statements was barely noticed. On March 28, school board President Ray McGarry noted, “Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the federal government are not funding our public schools at the level to which I believe it is necessary . ... Public education is under attack at the federal level.” These decreased levels of funding, McGarry went on to say, necessitate “creativity” in fundraising. Enter Schwarzman.
McGarry is not wrong, to a point. Public school funding has indeed been under attack for much of his lengthy tenure on the school board. This attack has been significantly amplified during the Trump Administration. And sure enough, Schwarzman is an adviser, friend and supporter of Trump, has held meetings with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and — amazingly — has stated publicly and proudly that he wishes to see his gift spur a “paradigm shift” in the way public education is funded.
And what, exactly, is the paradigm shifting to? What is his agenda? Schwarzman isn’t saying, at least not publicly. Is this lack of detail due to his ignorance on educational matters? Or are we witnessing another example of the follow-themoney kleptocracy that is gripping our public policymaking these days?
Whatever his reasons, the simple fact is that he doesn’t have to tell us. That’s the beauty of private money — it’s private.
The scenario unfolding in Abington should be a call to arms — a call for appropriate levels of funding for schools and for the election of legislators at all levels who believe in public education — and one that should be led by McGarry, Sichel and other leaders in public education.
This should also be a call to action and advocacy on the part of parents, students, teachers and all of us with a stake in public education; our schools are perhaps our most important civic institution, our investment in our future and our responsibility to properly fund and protect.
The alternative — the unregulated privatization of public schools by funders with unknown agendas and no particular interest in education — is risky and dangerous to both to our public schools and, above all, to our students. — Gabrielle Sellei, Abington