Calling all billionaires: S.F. plans to ask philanthropists for huge sums to help schools post-pandemic

San Francisco officials are hatching a plan to raise a huge sum over five years — possibly more than $2 billion — for city schools to address the academic and emotional damage done by the pandemic, and also prove that with enough cash, a public education can look and feel a lot more like a private one.

The fundraising effort would align with a new, temporary commission tasked with coming up with a way to address the learning loss and other issues related to the pandemic as well as long-term plans for a first-class public education, one that incorporates tutoring, art, music and family services.

Officials hope the effort will also help keep families in San Francisco schools and possibly lure back parents who have fled the school system during distance learning.

The effort is an unprecedented attempt that could raise public education spending to up to $20,000 per student, which would require the backing of several billionaires and in the long term mean convincing taxpayers to cover such costs.

It won’t be easy, said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who is co-sponsoring the legislation to create the commission.

“I just refuse to believe that we can’t give an excellent education to all children if we had our priorities straight in this country,” Ronen said.

Currently, California spends about $12,000 per student per year, which does not include funding for facilities costs covered by state and local bonds.

By comparison, many private schools charge $20,000 to upward of $60,000 per student per year, and other states spend up to twice as much as California, including New York.

Ronen and Supervisor Myrna Melgar plan to introduce the legislation Tuesday to create the nine-member commission. The Department of Children, Youth and Their Families would help coordinate the fundraising and implementation, Ronen said. Ronen is expected to announce the plan at a press conference Tuesday with city officials.

While the city technically has no authority over or legal obligation to public education, it does have a significant responsibility to children, said Maria Su, executive director of the city department, which created learning hubs across the city to help struggling students during the pandemic.

“I”m 100{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} in on this,” she said. “It is about we the city coming together. It will take all of us to get through the damage COVID-19 has caused to our families and our communities.”

Research is increasingly showing that, despite the best efforts of teachers, many students are struggling with distance learning, while their mental and emotional health are at greater risk.

The commission would come up with a plan for what programs or investments need to be in place and then the dollar figure required to do it. That could include summer school, Saturday school, smaller class sizes, or additional staff in the classrooms or music and art programs.

The state budget is expected to allocate some education funding for academic recovery, which could contribute to what will clearly be a hefty price tag, Ronen said.

Still, Ronen acknowledged more than $2 billion — with a B — is a jaw-dropping figure and will require the buy-in of high-roller philanthropists as well as federal, state and local funding that could be available to address needs post-pandemic.

Raising that kind of cash would require the equivalent of several billionaires writing a $50 million check annually for five years to help the district’s 53,000 students.

That would boost the school district’s current $1 billion budget — which includes all funding sources, including bonds for construction — by $500 million a year. The superintendent as well as at least a few school board members support the idea.

That would mean another $9,000 per student.

But some critics said the plan doesn’t deal with the root causes of what they call an underfunded education system.

“Financing public schooling is something that shouldn’t be dependent upon the largesse of wealthy people,” said Rob Reich, professor of political science at Stanford University who has studied philanthropy and education. “Philanthropy in this case worsens inequalities across the state further.”

Reich said that if local elected officials are concerned about insufficient school funding, “the root of that problem is in Sacramento.”

He said the solution is to mobilize the political will of parents, students and companies to address it.

And the idea of huge boosts to school funding has been tried before.

During the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, struggling schools were given millions in additional funding to boost innovation and provide resources for students.

While research shows the funding did spark improvements in academic performance, the money eventually dried up, leaving schools to try to backfill the funding for the extra staffing and other supports.

Many of the programs were eventually phased out for lack of funding.

Ronen acknowledged the same possibility with her plan, but believes dramatically increasing funding could finally show what a difference it could make.

“We need to try for once in modern history to fund the public system on par with the private system,” she said. “My theory behind this effort is that we have to start with a vision and start somewhere.”

Ronen said she has the mayor’s support and believes donors are looking for this kind of bold effort.

“I am not letting these kids fail,” she said.

The commission would work for five months to create a plan, which would then go to the supervisors for approval.

It would include a parent, a school board member, an education expert, a public health professional, a philanthropy representative, a youth services provider, a teachers union official, and appointees from the mayor and superintendent.

School board member Kevine Boggess has been working with Ronen and Melgar on the plan.

“The health and economic crises we are experiencing present an opportunity to redesign each of our schools into a comprehensive resource and information hub,” Boggess said in a statement. He said he envisions each school would have nurses, community school coordinators, mental health counselors and enrichment programs.

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-leaning education policy think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington D.C., said just as “New York City has leaned a lot on Wall Street donations over the years, I don’t see any reason why San Francisco shouldn’t do the same. The goal should be a world-class education system that serves kids regardless of their income level.”

Petrilli said the success of the plan would be dependent on selling a vision to philanthropists, building strong leadership to implement it and avoiding other distractions. He cited the recent controversial effort in San Francisco to rename schools in the middle of a pandemic.

Miguel A. Rodríguez, regional vice president of the nonprofit Innovate Public Schools for San Francisco, said he’s “incredibly excited” and “wholeheartedly behind” the supervisors’ proposal.

Rodríguez wanted to see new money used for increasing instructional time and adding one-on-one interventions for students who need them.

“It’s going to take philanthropy, it’s going to take public monies, both at the local, state and federal level to truly address and come up with nontraditional solutions to meet the needs of our predominantly low-income students in San Francisco,” he said.

Chronicle staff writer Mallory Moench contributed to this report.

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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