Public school systems around the country may have spent the past several years starving for cash in this financially troubled era, but a new report shows that philanthropists doled out $684 million in private grants from 2000-08 to organizations involved in reforming the teaching profession.

The analysis, the first comprehensive examination of philanthropy activity in this area, showed that the biggest chunk of the money — 38 percent — went to teacher recruitment, while 22 percent was spent on professional development, 14 percent on teacher preparation and less than 10 percent for everything else.

One organization was the big winner in the money giveaway, according to the University of Georgia researchers who did the analysis, and given all the attention it has received from school reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it should come as no surprise.

Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that recruits newly graduated college students to commit to teach for two years in high-needs schools, was tops on the list of recipients, with $213,444,431, or 31 percent of the total. This doesn’t include at least $150 million it received from foundations and the U.S. government in the past year, which is outside the scope of the report.

The direction of the donations underscores the current trend in school reform to bring teachers into schools through alternative certification models that bypass traditional years-long teaching programs, with the 20-year-old Teach for America leading the charge.

The organization’s model is controversial: It gives its recruits five weeks of summer training and then places them in urban and rural schools that are often the most troubled in the country.

Critics say that five weeks is hardly enough to train a truly qualified teacher, and that the program, which initially only accepted recruits from the Ivy League but now has greatly expanded its pool, has higher attrition rates than the already high attrition rates of traditionally trained teachers. While many traditional teacher prep programs are indeed inadequate, critics say that Teach for America is the wrong solution.

Still, more than 60 percent of all grants went to the controversial Teach for America and nine other organizations, which are:

2. Academy for Educational Development, $59,063,000

3. Northwest Educational Service District 189, $45,012,830

4. Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, $21,561,106

5. The New Teacher Project, $17,955,680

6. University of California at Santa Cruz, New Teacher Center, $16,642,730

7. Teacher Advancement Program, $15,480,625

8. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, $12,401,350

9. Philadelphia Foundation, $10,000,000

10. Teachers Network, $9,441,402

The report notes that most of the $684 million donated by foundations came from a relatively small number of institutions; in fact, 10 foundations accounted for half of all grants. The foundations, in order:

1. Carnegie Corp. of New York, $81,969,575

2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $78,167,363

3. Annenberg Foundation, $36,725,000

4. Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, $25,401,978

5. Broad Foundation, $24,554,869

6. Joyce Foundation, $23,773,256

7. Lilly Endowment, Inc. $21,224,576

8. Milken Family Foundation, $20,700,625

9. Ford Foundation, $17,581,716

10. Stuart Foundation, $14,459,666

(Because the researchers looked at grants between 2000 and 2008, this total does not include $500 million that the Gates foundation invested later in teacher evaluation systems and money that other foundations have spent since.)

The focus on teachers is hardly a new one; foundations have been investing in improving teaching and developing teachers for decades.

In fact, some of the same strategies being pursued by foundations today are the same as those supported in the 1950s, including strengthening teacher training with clinical experience and institution performance pay (which was never seen as especially successful).

The authors of the report don’t say it — and in fact seem supportive of the reform movement — but the fact that reformers keep trying strategies that have failed in the past raises questions about just how smart some of these investments really are.

What is different today, the report notes, is the “convergence between the philanthropic sector and federal policymakers,” which is a polite way of saying that Duncan’s Education Department has the same agenda as many of the philanthropists (and Duncan has in fact hired key aides from the philanthropic community), which is a polite way of saying that, in the opinion of many, Duncan’s department is in the thrall of billionaires who are using their wealth to set and direct the country’s education reform agenda.

The “convergence” is such that the Gates Foundation provided several million dollars in grants to states to help them complete applications for Duncan’s Race to the Top competition.

If the foundations were supporting policies that were known to be successful, there would likely be a lot less angst at their unprecedented — and in some cases, hands-on — involvement in federal education policy, but they aren’t. That they are pursuing strategies that are not helpful and are in some areas harmful makes their questionable involvement even worse.

Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page. Bookmark it!