Education Philanthropy Only Helps The Already Well-Off
Credit: BobboSphere
April 14, 2014

Spring is here and that means the final dash to do fundraising this school year. Across the country, bake sales, car washes and candy drives will be sponsored by PTAs in a desperate attempt to nickel-and-dime parents into funding everything from end-of-year promotions to field trips. As long as I’ve been a public school parent in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., I’ve participated in this rite of passage.

As vice president of my son’s elementary school PTA, we spent many hours trying to find ways to carve up a small, shriveled pie. We sold wrapping paper, pizza, cookie dough, strombolis – a virtual gastronomic feast – to help fund art programs and science assemblies – aka, the basics. I was foolish enough to think this was pro forma, but far from it.

If you follow education closely you might have heard that billionaires are buying public education. In fact, billionaires have declared war against public education. And those that aren’t plotting public schools’ mass destruction are in the classroom – decidedly up to no good. The thing about billionaires is that they’re large, moving targets. With all the fear mongering about big philanthropy, a network of smaller, local foundations and wealthy PTAs can fly under radar, undetected. In a zone where parents write checks for thousands of dollars, deepening class and economic stratification, and where a $110,000 video scoreboard and million-dollar turf field are chump change.

In Montgomery County, school leaders have an unwavering commitment to equity. For a majority-minority school system with one-third of its students receiving free and reduced-price meals and 138 languages spoken, equity as a core value is intended to foster a rich educational environment exclusive of students’ riches. But how do you maintain that equity when some parents, with the stroke of a pen, can give their children academic and other school offerings that rival those found in private schools – while PTAs in less-affluent areas struggle to help pay for minimal teacher requests.

Rob Reich, associate professor of political science at Stanford and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, in a New York Times op-ed makes a convincing case for how this philanthropy undercuts equity:Wanting to support your own children’s education is understandable, but it also has unintended, pernicious effects. The school foundations are legally registered as public charities. When donors give to their own child’s school or district, they are making a charitable contribution that the federal government treats in the same way as a donation to a food bank or disaster relief.But charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite.

Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off.Community involvement is great. Parents who are generous enough to donate their time and money to their child’s school are admirable. And with dwindling tax dollars for schools, education foundations supplement what’s missing. Yet with school-based foundations in wealthy neighborhoods raising hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, as schools in low-income neighborhoods raise little or none, they most certainly contribute to educational injustice.

This may be why Portland, Oregon, came up with a way to share the joy. When Portland parents wanted to raise private dollars to support teaching positions and educational enhancements at their schools, the Board gave the green light for local school foundations – and required that one-third of all funds raised (after the first $10,000) be set aside in an equity fund that is distributed to high-need schools. The other two-thirds remain with the school. Greg Belisle, co-chair of Portland Public Schools Board of Education, described a balancing act to “keep engagement and not punish those who are able to contribute.”

Now nearing its 20th year, the policy has room for improvement. Parents not thrilled with sharing can circumvent the school foundation, funding projects directly out of their pockets or through the PTA. Though imperfect, it’s a creative approach to address disparities in school funding. Portland is interesting and understudied.

Unfettered private money and parents’ largesse flowing into public schools is pernicious and arguably more important than big philanthropy. Because while billionaires don't pose a DEFCON 1-level threat to my son’s school, if we sold pizza to every man, woman, child, and pet in our school community, we couldn’t come close to the money raised on the other side of the county. That's not equitable, that's not parity, and that's not in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that we should subscribe to in public education.

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