Cooke Foundation’s Executive Director Responds to “Elitism” Entry

After my last entry, Elitism in the Name of Access, David Egner, the communications consultant at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, contacted me and asked if the Foundation’s Executive Director, Harold O. Levy, could respond as a guest writer. I am happy to oblige.

Mr. Levy’s distinguished career includes being Chancellor of the New York City public school system, the largest school system in the U.S, from 2000-2002. He has also held leadership roles as a corporate attorney, venture capital investor and as a manager in the financial services industry. I’d like to thank him for taking the time to address the topic of educational access and equity here as well as in many other forums. It is one we both agree is critically important.

My next entry will be a follow-up to Mr. Levy’s.


By Harold O. Levy

I am responding to the post headlined “Elitism in the Name of Access” and to its criticism of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director.

I am a strong believer that all children – from those with learning difficulties up to those with the greatest intellectual abilities – deserve an equal opportunity to get an education that meets their needs, enables them to reach their full potential and prepares them for adult life. For some students this means a vocational or technical education. For others it means a college education and graduate school at very expensive educational institutions.

As the former schools chancellor in New York City, I dedicated myself to helping students having the greatest difficulties in school and to reducing the high school dropout rate. That was the right thing to do. But like many others, I assumed that the brightest students – those who some call “gifted” – would do just fine in K-12 and go on to college, with scholarships when needed, because of their high abilities.

I was wrong. Recent research has conclusively demonstrated that the highest-achieving students are often bored, sometimes develop disciplinary problems, and many times underperform if they do not get the benefit of challenging classes, teachers trained in meeting their needs, and guidance on finding the best academic path and preparing for college.

For children from low-income families these problems are compounded. Their parents are unable to afford to live in neighborhoods with the best public schools, and can’t afford the many enrichment experiences and preparation for college admission tests that more affluent parents can provide.

Some of these students struggle with homelessness and hunger. Some must work long hours while in school to help support their parents, their siblings, or spouses and children of their own. For many, scholarships and loans are not enough to cover their educational and living expenses in college.

It’s a false choice to say we must give only one type of student the most appropriate education. We must provide it to them all.

Jack Kent Cooke, a great entrepreneur and sports team owner, left much of his fortune to create the foundation that bears his name specifically to meet the needs of high-achieving students from low-income families. This was not “elitist.” It was simply designed to meet an unmet need. Mr. Cooke, who had to drop out of high school during the Great Depression to help support his struggling family, was determined to help young people in similar circumstances get the education he never had the chance to receive many years ago.

With an endowment now worth about $640 million thanks to Mr. Cooke’s great gift, we are proud to have provided over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive counseling and other support services in the past 16 years. The foundation has also awarded over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.

Even if we gave away every penny in the endowment in one year, which would mean the foundation would have to shut down and never help another student, we couldn’t fund the education of millions of low-income students in the United States. But we certainly support the work of government at all levels, colleges and other nonprofits to provide funds and programs needed to give students of all academic abilities – particularly those with financial need – the most appropriate education.

Educating our children must be a national effort. No one foundation or group of foundations can fund it all. At the Cooke Foundation we will continue to join with others with the goal of making equal educational opportunity a reality for every child. By doing this, we help transform young lives and build a better future for our nation and the world.