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Many public institutions, like libraries, are funded by private money, but caution is key. | Opinion

The control of public schools remains overwhelmingly public - but as with all things in rapidly changing world, the bright lines that once existed between public and private have dimmed.

Private fundraising efforts to pay for public education are on the rise in this region and elsewhere across the country.
Private fundraising efforts to pay for public education are on the rise in this region and elsewhere across the country.Read moreCynthia Greer / Staff

 The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught that anonymity represented a higher level of charitable virtue than gifts made with personal attribution. The old sage would not have made it as a major gifts fund-raiser in the 21st century.

Major gifts are almost always about attribution and the leverage created through the notoriety of the giver, the donor networks that follow, and the heightened prestige of the cause or institution receiving the gift.

Naming rights are the ultimate in attribution. There is not a hospital, university, symphony hall, or museum that does not sell the naming rights for buildings, schools, faculty positions, rooms, or research centers. It would be fund-raising malpractice if they didn't.

Large civic building projects have also shifted naming practices from the honorific to the commercial. Stadiums most exemplify this transition.  

Philadelphia stadiums used to be named in reference to a place (say, municipal stadium), a person (such as Connie Mack) or a collective symbol (Veterans) disconnected from a commercial transaction. Today our major sports venues are named for the three financial-services firms that paid for naming rights: Wells Fargo, Lincoln Financial, and Citizens.

The tension between ownership, sources of funding, and naming spilled into the open in Abington Township a few weeks ago.

Stephen Schwarzman, one of the cofounders of the Blackstone Group, attended Abington High School and wanted to donate $25 million to an expansion effort. The size of the donation was path-breaking for a single public school. But Schwarzman also sought naming rights, which he previously got – through a much smaller gift — with Abington's football stadium. The new school would be called Abington Schwarzman High School.

When the school board privately agreed to the new name without any public process, a feel-good story quickly turned into an angry hearing over the name change. Parents, residents, and alumni voiced shock at a meeting packed to the rafters. Ultimately, the name change was retracted, but the gift remains.

The Abington kerfuffle has a lot of dimensions. For one thing, the school board flunked Governance 101. Transparency and public deliberation are required in the management of a publicly funded asset, particularly when it has to do with the overall identity of the system.

Second, in a small township like Abington the name of the high school and the community overlap in memory and identity. Changing the name of the high school is tantamount to changing the name of the township. Sentiments about place have to be appreciated and honored.

And then, of course, there is the macro-political meaning. In comments on social media the incident was sometimes framed as a battle between private enterprise and public control. And in keeping with the general ethos of cultural distrust that defines America today, Schwarzman was both praised for his generosity while also being vilified by some for his politics and hubris.

The relationship between public ownership and private wealth is a good debate to have, but only if it moves from its usual simplistic formula where the extreme right denies any communitarian purpose to schooling and the hard left assumes that every philanthropic gesture or innovation is a privatization conspiracy.

In point of fact, private philanthropy in America has played a significant role in public education. It has done so through funding research, contributing to school district budgets around special initiatives (such as the recent William Penn Foundation and Lenfest Institute support for Philadelphia School District reading programs)  and most recently through support for hybrid schools like charters, publicly chartered but privately managed.  For charters, philanthropy has most often helped through grants for facilities, start-up costs, and special programs not covered by public revenue.

But the amount of private money provided, whether it comes from the most prolific givers in Silicon Valley, large philanthropies like Gates or Walton, or hedge-fund managers, is marginal to where the bulk of revenue for our public schools is derived: local and state taxes.

The control remains overwhelmingly public — but as with all things in a rapidly changing world, the bright lines that once existed between public and private have dimmed. This is increasingly so in a time when technology, demography, and economic change are acting as global and national disruptors to existing institutions. The meaning of public distinctions between how something is funded and regulated vs. who manages the entity is changing.

Philanthropy can work in partnership with forward-thinking public managers to figure out to bridge the achievement gap, make better use of technology and data, and innovate around new partnership structures. To deny those opportunities is to deny reality.

This is a time for more Schwarzman-like donors to partner with public institutions and work around a common agenda for change. We would do well to remember that some of our most important public institutions – libraries being the best example – have their origins in private philanthropy and civil society.

The Abington name-change ruckus was a distraction from the important issue of solving common problems with increasingly uncommon partners and participants. Forget about the name. Let's get to the real work at hand.

Jeremy Nowak is coauthor (with Bruce Katz) of "The New Localism: How cities can thrive in the age of populism," published by Brookings Press. He is a Distinguished Fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.