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How to Make Millionaires Stakeholders in Our Public Schools

New York’s wealthiest citizens need to step up with their checkbooks to back the city’s public schools. Equally important, they need to become real stakeholders in our shared success.

How many millionaires do you think there are in New York City? I’ve asked this question more than a thousand times. The answer might surprise you.

Late last year, the consulting firm Capgemini released its annual United States Wealth Report, which put the number of these high-net-worth individuals living in the New York metropolitan area at an astonishing 963,000.

Why do I keep asking this question? Because as a cofounder of a public high school in the Bronx, and founder of a small educational nonprofit, the Foundation for Letters, I’ve seen our public education system struggle for attention and funding for years. I’m always trying to convince those with significant means to give a small percentage of their fortune to improve urban public education—a cause that tends to be low on their list of charitable priorities because they don’t tend to live in underserved communities of color. They don't see themselves as natural stakeholders in the fight to improve urban public education. But they should.

Ironically, getting millionaires to support public education isn’t always the fiercest fight. There’s been an increasingly bitter debate in Democratic and education reform circles about the ethics of asking for external support for public schools. Some activists and educators believe that private support for public schools isn’t “progressive.” They believe that the mere mention of the words "external" or “private” are threats to teachers and insults their understanding of the role that poverty plays in the existence of the achievement gap. In their view, the only ideologically pure way to improve public education is by demanding more public funds.

I believe there’s a practical problem with this approach. This year, the New York City Department of Education will spend $23 billion to serve just over one million students, translating to $23,000 per student. That’s roughly 25 percent of the entire New York City budget, and it’s unrealistic to think there will be the political will to raise taxes enough or cut other areas sufficiently to allow for a doubling of the education funding.

That’s likely what it would take to achieve something close to parity with private schools. At many private boarding schools, tuition now regularly exceeds $58,000 per year. Their boards then direct additional funds annually from multimillion-dollar endowments to offer scholarships to low income students.

I was once one of those lucky students. I was raised in Newark, New Jersey—a challenging urban environment today, and even more so 30 years ago. In 1985, when I was 13, I was in trouble. I was expelled from one middle school (coincidentally, the same one attended by Newark’s current mayor, Ras Baraka), and was surrounded by crime and gang violence. My family, neighborhood, and existence were racked by the poverty, drug abuse, and violence that are still endemic to urban life.

Then, Williston Northampton, a private boarding high school in New England, sent an admissions officer to recruit at my school in New Jersey, as part of an effort to improve diversity on Williston’s campus. What he saw was an ordinary kid. I was far from the smartest kid in my class. I was not the best athlete, the funniest, or the most artistic. I wasn’t even close to the hardest working or the most popular. But for some reason, Mr. Southworth poked his head into Mr. Banks’s science class, took a look at my unspectacular project (a motor made with a shoebox, a battery, and a stick), and saw something in me. In my English class, he peeked into my “book of rhymes,” then asked me to interview.

Thanks to that interview, I was accepted to Williston, given the chance to escape a difficult environment and exposed to educational opportunities that would never have been possible for me otherwise. I was given the opportunity to graduate from Yale, to work on Wall Street, and to become a “high-net-worth individual.”

I was one of the lucky ones—the exception, not the rule. In 2016, 38 percent of New York students in grades 3–8 achieved a “proficient” (passing) score on the English Language Arts (ELA) test. Yet only 26.5 percent and 27.2 percent of Black and Hispanic students did so. White and Asian students, by comparison, achieved proficiency at dramatically higher rates: 58.8 percent and 58.9 percent respectively. These percentages show that students of color, often residents of low-income urban areas, enter ninth grade well behind their more affluent, often white or Asian contemporaries. From my own involvement in helping to educate them, I know that these students struggle not only to reach college readiness, but to enter—and more importantly, to stay enrolled—in college.

The difference isn’t just money—it’s the culture of support surrounding the students. Most urban, lower-income parents don’t have the means, the time, or in some cases the education to advocate for their children in the same way a private school’s PTA can. And public schools don’t have individual boards of trustees to advocate for them.

At my nonprofit, the Foundation for Letters, our goal is to create such advocacy groups. We call them External Support Organizations. Just like our private-school counterparts, we work to facilitate coordinated support from—among others—as many of those 963,000 local millionaires as possible to help us close that funding gap, and to participate firsthand in how the funds are used.

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Our first ESO, the Advisory Board of the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, the school I cofounded, raised over $4 million overall—more than $2.5 million of it from individual donations. [Disclosure: Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief John Avlon served on the Bronx Academy of Letters’ board.] In 2013, the New York Daily News ranked the Bronx Academy of Letters among the city’s top 25 high schools. The approach has proven its value. But it’s also shown us that donor dollars aren’t enough.

Writing a check makes you a donor. Becoming involved in the educational experiences of children you don’t know, makes you a stakeholder. Sadly, it’s much easier to get a millionaire to write a $1,000 check than to volunteer for three hours on a Saturday to help a high school senior with a college essay. But the combination of financial and volunteer support from a single individual is transformative.

So when I ask you how many millionaires there are in New York City, it’s not only because I’m imagining the potential impact that could come from the fact that there are 500 millionaires in NYC for each of its 1,856 public schools. I’m also elated at the prospect of 500 volunteers showing up at an urban school in an under-served neighborhood to help kids write better college essays.

Education reform has barely been a topic of conversation in the general election, let alone the presidential debates. But it’s one of the few areas where there is a proven path for transcending the divisiveness that characterizes contemporary politics while making measurable progress in closing the income gap and achievement gap, one person at a time.

Mike Jackson is executive vice president of Capital Markets at Supernova Companies, co-based in Chicago and New York. He is founder and volunteer CEO at the Foundation for Letters, a co-founder of the Bronx Academy of Letters, and chair of the investment committee at the Williston-Northampton School. He holds a B.A. from Yale University.