The Annenberg Challenge: Lessons and Legacy

Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society (Duke)



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This report begins with a brief overview of privately funded school reform leading up to the Annenberg Challenge (to which I will mostly refer simply as “Annenberg”). I then move into the structure and aims of Annenberg. In seeking to answer this question, I quickly learned that Annenberg was not one initiative, but rather a diffuse and even contradictory set of initiatives. Indeed, this is a broadly voiced criticism of the program.

As a result, I center my investigation on Annenberg’s efforts in three cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. These cities constitute Annenberg’s largest investments, each at roughly $50 million (New York followed at half that amount).[i] Each presents a strikingly different model of reform; together, they provide a useful snapshot of Annenberg’s efforts in the nation’s nineteen largest cities. A smaller portion of the Annenberg money was dedicated to nationwide arts programming, education reform groups, and rural education. These efforts mostly fall outside the scope of our inquiry.

I conclude with some interpretations of Annenberg’s legacy, the subsequent (and I surmise resulting) strategies of education philanthropists, and some speculation about what Annenberg may tell us about the staying power of contemporary reforms. The aim here is to consider not just Annenberg’s direct impact, i.e. its immediate effect on the cities it targeted, but also its indirect impact through its influence on current reformers. The distinction here is admittedly somewhat artificial but nonetheless useful for uncovering Annenberg’s broader legacy.

[i] Raymond Domanico, Carol Innerst, and Alexander Russo, Can Philanthropy Fix Our Schools? Appraising Walter Annenberg’s $500 Million Gift to Public Education (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, April 2000),

Author: Peter McElroy



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