As alumni, taxpayers, and supporters of public education, we were glad to learn that Abington High School would not be renamed after Stephen Schwarzman. Earlier in the week, we, along with other members of the Abington alumni community, were dismayed and alarmed by the Abington school board’s decision to grant naming rights for our beloved — publicly funded — alma mater in exchange for $25 million from hedge-fund billionaire Schwarzman.
While Schwarzman is a fellow graduate of Abington High, we have doubts that he is a true friend to public education, or to the mission of providing quality K-12 schooling to every child, regardless of race or nationality.
Schwarzman once compared the policies of President Barack Obama to those of Adolf Hitler. As a prominent supporter of President Trump, he has been complicit in attacks against public education, immigrants, people of color, women, low-income communities, and our very democracy.
The destructive forces of institutionalized greed have decimated once-sacred institutions, including public education, and have consequently weakened the political power of working people and middle-class families in America. The cult of Wall Street and corporate largesse has done no favors for working people, such as the thousands of teachers in West Virginia who launched a historic walkout after receiving no raises for four years.
Those of us who were lucky to be raised in the diverse, affluent Montgomery County suburbs didn’t know this in our youth, but Pennsylvania has the most inequitable public education funding system in the country. Due to years of policy failures at the state and federal levels, local school districts have had no choice but to force homeowners to shoulder much of the cost of public education through ever-soaring property taxes.
Unfortunately, not every community has the tax base of Abington, and we see the byproducts of a public education system lacking investment every day as working adults. Too many schools in Pennsylvania — and across the nation — make do with too few resources, too few teachers and support personnel, overcrowded classrooms, unsafe drinking water, leaky roofs, and broken heating systems. The kids who attend these schools are sent a message of how little they are valued by leaders in government and private industry, and it sets them up for failure as adults.
Equitable education funding is essential to building all of the things we want: safe, diverse communities and a strong economy. There is something grotesque in endowing millions of dollars to one of the wealthiest school districts in the commonwealth — one that, however unintentionally, has benefited from systemic inequality.
Changing the name of our high school to honor a hedge-fund billionaire would have been a slap in the face to all of the educators, parents, schoolchildren, and allies in labor who have been fighting to ensure that all public schools, especially those that serve the most vulnerable children, have the resources they need. It’s especially offensive to students, teachers, and families in those communities who have been attacked by the Trump administration.
The point of publicly funded institutions is to provide collective funding, but also collective ownership, collective responsibility, and collective accountability. Public school systems are accountable to taxpayers and, in the case of the Abington School District, they’re accountable to the voters. Inserting private funding of this magnitude has the tendency to confuse decision-makers about to whom they answer. The fact that a billionaire donor was given naming rights after making a significant contribution, without public input, exemplifies the problems with this type of funding arrangement.
Whatever people think about taxation, public money is honest money; it’s collected from the hard work of taxpayers and appropriated in public meetings by elected legislators and school directors. This donation by Schwarzman can hardly be called transparent.
The outcry to this toxic gift from the Abington community and from alumni currently residing as far away as Washington state demonstrates just how specious it was to entertain the ego of a billionaire and claim that it was in service to the students. “Abington Schwarzman High School” would have been insulting to taxpayers, to parents, to teachers, to students, and to alumni who have supported public education through their time, their money, and their advocacy.
Our alma mater — Abington Senior High School — is a public school, and a very good one at that. It prepared us to be successful in college and in our careers in government and politics. Abington belongs to the public and should be accountable to the public. Bidding off pieces one by one runs counter to the very point of institutions that were created to strengthen the middle class and all communities. Twenty-five million dollars is a lot of money – but our core democratic values should not be for sale.
Joe Corrigan, Abington Class of 2004, is principal at Edge Hill Strategies LLC. Julie Wertheimer, Abington Class of 2003, lives and works in Philadelphia.