Public Schools

Can Parental Fundraising Bring Equality to Public School Education?


Schools want the parents of their students to be deeply engaged in the educational process. But could the parent-school partnership get carried away? Laura McKenna, writing recently within the Atlantic, looked at the dramatic growth of parent fundraising and asked, \”Is all of this work from parent-school groups-work that is completed with the very best of intentions-unfairly increasing advantages in already privileged communities?\” It is a question that talks to the heart of a larger conversation about public education and educational equity.

Earlier this season, Beth Gazley at Indiana University wrote in our print quarterly about the growing trend of public services relying on philanthropic support and described the significant growth in public school fundraising based on her ongoing research. Total school-focused philanthropy had already reached more than three-quarters of the billion dollars by 2010. She cautioned,

Most from the philanthropy fond of public schools is local, meaning that wealthy school districts have a philanthropic advantage and few people are paying attention to fairness and balance. And, indeed, we found clear evidence that across the nation private philanthropy for public schools exacerbates rather than eliminates budgetary inequities across school districts. Specifically, although most educational funding still comes from taxpayers, we discovered that wealthy school districts are able to provide more dollars per pupil overall through this philanthropic \”bonus.\”

The Atlantic article citied the job of Rob Reich, associate professor of political science at Stanford and co-director from the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, who sees this same negative impact of oldsters raising funds for his or her children' schools. In a 2021 New York Times op-ed, he wrote:

Wanting to support your own children's education is understandable, but it also has unintended, pernicious effects…When donors give to their own child's school or district, they're creating a charitable contribution that the authorities treats in the same manner as a donation to a food bank or disaster relief. But charity such as this is not relief for the poor. It is, actually, the alternative. Private giving to public schools widens the space between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring edge over the already well-off. By decreasing the taxes from the donor and diminishing the tax revenues that would otherwise have been collected and partly given to rich and poor schools alike, state and federal governments have been in effect subsidizing the charitable activity of parents who donate to their child's school. In this respect, the policies that govern private giving to public schools seem perverse. Tax policy makes federal and state governments complicit in the deepening of existing inequalities that they're ostensibly responsible for diminishing in the first place.

On sleep issues of the concern is Jay P. Greene, professor of education and political science in the University of Arkansas, who calls the cash collected by parents insignificant relative to the quantity spent each year on public schools.

Charitable sources from the Gates Foundation to the local parent-teacher organization contribute an estimated $2 billion total to public schools annually. When compared to the $600 billion the nation allocated to K-12 education during the 2021 fiscal year, he noted, the total spending from philanthropy is \”buckets into the sea.\”

\”The millions that the PTAs and foundations raise every years appears like lots of money,\” Greene said, \”but in reality, it is a rounding error.\”

The absolute amount raised by parents is not big enough to make the distinction between \”rich\” and \”poor\” schools, but they do exacerbate an increasing incidence of imbalance in opportunity. At some elite high schools around the country, parents raise thousands and thousands or even millions to aid guest lecturers, science equipment and scholarships. And beyond exactly what the money can purchase, this focus on \”my school\” plays a role in a really narrow view of community and the responsibilities of citizens towards the common good. Currently when public funding for schools has decreased, a reliance upon school-based philanthropy will end up increasingly troublesome if equity is our objective.

McKenna shows that \”rather than restricting affluent parents from adding to their public schools or shaming them for their efforts, perhaps they may be asked to consider public education beyond their town boundaries-partnering with schools in less affluent areas and forging a fellowship over time. In better understanding that public education extends beyond the five-mile radius of the communities, parents may be prepared to share a portion of their considerable resources and social capital to profit other kids.\” That's the change. Shall we be up to it?-Martin Levine

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