The Ivy League hasn’t allowed many sports during the pandemic, so it’s understandable why Brown University was in need of a victory lap.
But sending a press release this week about the university awarding $470,000 to Providence schools feels more like a Gatorade bath after a two-yard gain than it does a substantive gift for a district that desperately needs real help.
You know the story about Providence schools. Before COVID-19, it was the largest crisis in our state, and it will be again when the pandemic is over. There are 24,000 kids in the district, and most of them aren’t reading or doing math at grade level. That’s the kind of problem that creates even more problems down the road.
When I talked with Brown President Christina Paxson this week, she told me that the university can’t single-handedly save Providence schools. That’s true. But it does seem like Brown, with its $4.7 billion endowment, with all the talent and expertise it produces, could be willing and able to try a little harder.
The $470,000 gift this week is part of a promise made 14 years ago, when Brown announced a $10 million endowment for Providence’s schools. That endowment was part of another promise: the university’s make-good on its founding family’s participation in the slave trade in the 1700s. But donors weren’t very interested in helping Providence schools, and the university finally put up the money itself last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and amid urgent calls for racial justice.
The money is going to worthy initiatives. Brown is helping the Providence school district provide a more culturally responsive classroom experience. It’s paying to improve some of the school department’s data systems. It’s covering the first year of the new International Baccalaureate program at Hope High.
But there’s an opportunity for Brown to do so much more.
“We want to lean on the visions of the district,” Brown University professor Jonathan Collins, a member of the committee that oversees the funds, told me this week. He said the university should be pushed to do more for Providence, but he noted that this year’s funding covered everything the district requested.
That’s great. But the district is used to asking for little and getting even less. Brown’s role should be to get Providence out of its scarcity mindset. It’s not that the university owes the city something. It’s that Paxson and other university leaders are capable of contributing more to the community they’re in.
Need some ideas?
- The University of Pennsylvania set a high bar last year when it announced it would donate $100 million to Philadelphia schools over 10 years. If Brown wants to be seen the most caring university in America, it could help every Providence high school graduate get their bachelor’s degree from one of Rhode Island’s public colleges. The state already picks up the tab for their associate’s degree, so Brown could cover their final two years of college. Brown raises more than $300 million every year. This would cost less than $50 million a year.
- President Joe Biden wants universal pre-kindergarten. Brown could build the country’s flagship preschool program in Providence, helping kids but also creating internships and research opportunities for college students.
- Brown already does a lot with Hope High. But how about taking over an entire school? The state wants to open a K-8 school in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. Could the university run the entire operation?
- Too ambitious? There are thousands of children in Providence who live within a 10-minute drive to Brown, but have never seen the campus. Why not inspire them early and address a key issue at the same time? A summer program for elementary and middle school students on campus could do both.
When we talked, Paxson was as diplomatic as a person could be when someone is telling her how to spend Brown’s money.
She pointed out that Brown offers other financial resources to the district, like scholarships and summer programs. She pegs the amount at 1.5 million to $1.7 million a year. The university also makes about $3.4 million in direct payments in lieu of taxes to the city, which is separate from the school department. There’s a perennial debate about whether it pays it’s fair share to Providence.
Paxson also acknowledged that she isn’t satisfied with what Brown does for Providence schools, and said she’s willing to consider other options. She said she has more faith in R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters right now than she’s had in some previous leaders in Providence.
“Providence has to show, and I think they are well-positioned to show, that they can be a really successful high-functioning school district,” Paxson said.
It’s a fair point: Brown’s cash isn’t the answer to every problem. And Providence does have a reputation blaming its nonprofits every time it faces a budget shortfall.
Things are a little different now because the state has taken over Providence schools, and Infante-Green and Peters still have to prove they can negotiate a teachers’ union contract and move the needle on student outcomes.
But as commencement weekend begins, Paxson would be wise to remind Brown’s new graduates that they shouldn’t forget about Providence when they leave campus. And she could tell Brown’s wealthiest donors to do the same. Fixing Providence schools could save the entire state. It’s as worthwhile a cause as any other that Brown supports.