By Jun-Youb "JY" Lee
A recent gala headlined by John Legend celebrated the University of Pennsylvania's exceeding its $3.5 billion fund-raising goal by $800 million. But only blocks away, University City High School students quietly emptied their lockers following the Philadelphia School Reform Commission decision to close their school and 22 others to cover a $300 million budget deficit.
It's ironic that a university can raise $4.3 billion during its five-year campaign, yet an entire city can't raise $300 million for its schoolchildren. That's not a criticism of Penn, which does give back to the community. By providing $1.1 million in annual support to the Lea and Penn Alexander Schools, as well as $1.4 million to its Netter Center for Community Partnerships - not to mention the hours of community service contributed by its students and faculty - the university embodies the civic ideals of its founder, Benjamin Franklin.
Given the fiscal crisis facing Philadelphia public schools, however, Penn and other local colleges and universities ought to consider doing more. After all, investing in pre-college education would also serve the universities' long-term interests by feeding them a higher caliber of incoming local freshmen and helping with the retention of talented faculty with school-age children.
Penn alumni who give generously to their alma mater should also consider giving more to city schools. A $225 million gift by Penn graduate Raymond Perelman led to the university's School of Medicine being renamed for him. The late Walter Annenberg not only gave $286 million to Penn, but the media mogul also launched the $500 million Annenberg Challenge for School Reform in 1993 to support the nation's public schools. Where is the Penn benefactor who will mirror Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark schools with a similar contribution in Philadelphia?
Seattle native Bill Gates' foundation is backing Philadelphia schools; what about some local patrons? This city is called home by at least one billionaire in Urban Outfitters founder Richard Hayne, not to mention a number of half-billionaires, including Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Aramark boss Joseph Neubauer. Philadelphia also boasts wealthy celebrities like Will Smith and Bill Cosby, who attended Masterman and Central High School, respectively. Can't they do more? In return, public schools should not fear renaming their buildings, fields, or even the schools. A solid education does not depend on a school's name.
Of course, it's not just up to the rich to slay the public schools' $300 million deficit dragon. Nearly 327,000 alumni and friends contributed to Penn's fund-raising campaign. Every one of Philadelphia's 1.5 million citizens has, is, or was a child. When schools close, we all lose.