Thursday, September 05, 2013

Want to Start a Fight? Let's Talk about School Fundraising

Yes, I know. It's quite early in the year but this rather fascinating op-ed just appeared in the NY Times about fundraising.  What's interesting is that it is not about PTAs per se but about foundations that are created to support schools.  (Most of our comprehensive high schools have them.  Not sure about any others except I know Laurelhurst Elementary has one as well.)

The op-ed, entitled "Not Very Giving" is by Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.  (I'm linking the website but I haven't looked at it myself.)

He starts off in his own backyard with a bang:

Hillsborough is one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. Median family income is over $250,000, and residents enjoy one of the best school districts in the state. It’s not hard for Hillsborough families to donate to their own children’s school.

These funds supplement the annual public spending of $13,500 per pupil. In the process, they increase property values in Hillsborough. In 2012 private contributions to the foundation amounted to $3.45 million, or $2,300 per pupil.  

Hillsborough is not an anomaly. The foundation supporting the Palo Alto school district asks for $800 per child; in Menlo Park, it’s $1,500; and at the Ross Elementary School in Marin County, it’s a staggering $3,400. 

Less than 20 miles away from Hillsborough is East Palo Alto, which has a school foundation, but where median household income in 2011 was $48,700. The amount of money collected from parents is small.

I lived in this area and the swing from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood is staggering.  I checked the comments at the Times and sure enough, there was the one that said that these people help keep public education alive by enrolling their children in public schools.

Okay, but there are public schools and then there's Hillsborough and other wealthy enclaves that have schools that look nothing like a regular public school.

He goes on:

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.  

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. 

By lowering the taxes of the donor and diminishing the tax revenues that would otherwise have been collected and partly distributed to rich and poor schools alike, federal and state governments are 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 are ostensibly responsible for diminishing in the first place. 

He is NOT recommending that anyone should stop giving to their child's school.  

But he has some suggestions:
  • First, wealthy school foundations like Hillsborough’s should honor the equality-promoting standards released by the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education (on which I served). At a minimum, this would require private giving to be aggregated across schools and shared equally with the entire school district.  
  • Second, because the root cause of inadequate school financing is ultimately political, not philanthropic, donors and school foundations should support political reforms. 
  • Finally, Congress should differentiate or eliminate charitable status for local education foundations. If a foundation raises money for a district with a high percentage of children eligible for free lunch, it could offer a double deduction; for a district below the average in per-pupil spending, the standard deduction; for a district with few poor children and higher than average per-pupil spending, no deduction. If private giving to public schools exacerbates inequalities, then at the very least we should stop subsidizing such behavior with tax dollars. 
Have at it.


Anonymous said...

If the wealthy didn't give to their local schools foundation, they would find other outlets for their giving. And that giving would likely not be targeted to support poor and disadvantaged communities. Here is an excerpt from The Atlantic:

"Wealth affects not only how much money is given but to whom it is given. The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums. Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed. More gifts in this group went to elite prep schools (one, to the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York) than to any of our nation’s largest social-service organizations, including United Way, the Salvation Army, and Feeding America (which got, among them, zero)."

--- skeptical

Eric B said...

A friend lives in a suburban Boston district. At least in that district, you can't give money to a particular school. Everything is routed through the school district as a whole. I don't know if money can be earmarked to a particular project in any needy school (ie auditorium sound system). That evens out inequities between schools within a district, but not between neighboring districts.

Anonymous said...

13k per pupil! In what sounds like a district with low FRL and SPED funds from the Feds. Can you imagine? I wonder what their class sizes are, whether their kids have music in the hallway.

I think we should concerns ourselves with getting that level of funding instead of eyeing our neighbors' attempts to ameliorate the crappy funding levels we have.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Skeptical, good find, thanks.

A-mom said...

A modest proposal-
10% of all fund raising dollars earned goes to a central fund to ameliorate crappy funding levels.
I hear it's one third in Portland.

Patrick said...

Sleeper, 13k per pupil may sound like a lot, but it doesn't go far paying Bay Area salaries.

Those school districts in California are separate districts, so requiring all gifts to be to the entire district doesn't really get at the problem. That might be more effective in a district like Seattle, where there are some pretty well-off neighborhoods and others that are not well off at all.

But it's a really hard sell to tell people they can't contribute to their own child's school, where they can really see what the money goes to. And then you have to have a political process to distribute the money. I'm sure it would decrease the amount of donations they'd get. Hard choice.

Jon said...

Seems like the obvious solution to not enough funding for public schools is more funding for public schools (through higher taxes).

Robert Reich's solution seems silly and not well directed at the actual problem. If you are going to hinder people's ability to give to their own school, you should cut their ability to give to their own church too. Both of those directly benefit the individual giving and do nothing to help the broader community. In general, there is a question about whether the government should be subsidizing charitable giving at all, and Robert Reich's article seems to be mostly about that.

I think if we want to increase funding for public education, we need to increase taxes that fund public education.

Anonymous said...

In all honesty, this is what I would probably do if the PTA funds were divvied up:

Stop giving to the PTA, and split the money I currently give to the PTA between more enrichment for my own children (since their school quality will decline) and Wellspring, which I currently give to in equal amounts to my PTA donations. Possibly move, because as I've mentioned I do think our school funding levels are atrocious, and though my kids don't attend any of the powerhouse fundraisers, the schools definitely would not be able to provide much with the relatively low per pupil funding they get.

We all realize that when op eds talk about poor districts, they mean, sps, right? Urban districts, with our kind of frl percentage?

It's possible that would be better for disadvantaged kids in Seattle, if everyone is like me and currently matches their school giving with poverty giving. I think the article above says otherwise, though. But I definitely do not trust the school district to direct my charitable giving in a way that I would like it to be distributed, so I'd just stop. That's why I'm against it, not because I think poor kids don't need more money in their schools.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Sleeper, there are other poor districts than urban ones, for sure.

I don't support the district do this job (are you kidding?) but I think the Portland model might be one way to go.

We're all adults - it's the way of the world that some people - and their children and their children's schools - are better off. But it feels wrong to have this kind of divide in public schools.

Anonymous said...

I, too, like the idea of pooling a percentage of donations. When well-off people give to their own schools only, they no longer have much incentive to advocate for increased funding system-wide. The fact that people will stop giving it doesn't all go to their own schools says it all.

In our old district, we did have some pooling. Not an official percentage, but there were school-based and district-based campaigns. Although fundraising levels were nothing like here in Seattle, people were happy to donate what they could to both their school fund drives AND the district-wide (foundation-led) efforts. But then again, there was a lot more trust and a much greater sense of community in that district, and a lot less incompetence and mismanagement at the district level.


Jon said...

But, Melissa, the question is, where do you stop? If you want equity, where do you stop?

Let's say you prohibit giving to your own school, prohibit volunteering at your own school (since volunteer hours are badly unequal across schools too), and set per child funding equal. There, everything is equal. But you have made the situation worse for those most in need (funding is currently higher for spec ed and poor children, as it should be, but that is not equal). And you did nothing to solve the actual problem, which is absurdly low funding for children in public schools.

This idea that, in the name of equality, it is fine to make things worse is a real problem in public education. What we all should be doing is finding ways to make things better.

Public schools are underfunded. Going after giving to the public schools doesn't change that. The way to fix that is higher taxes so public schools have more funding.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Jon, I never said one single word about prohibiting anything. Neither did Professor Reich so I think you have taken this way out of context. Also, it is silly to speak of per student funding as set up to be exactly equal.

If you read the op-ed, you will see that he points out why this kind of giving actually hurts the tax base. And, that yes, the tax laws need to change. But frankly, I don't see that happening in Washington State any time soon. Even if it did, do we think the Legislature would give the schools more money?

Equity is not equality, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I am coming around to the idea that the tax deduction for "charitable giving" is a driver of lots of bad stuff. I was horrified when I first heard the idea - both donors and PTOs take advantage of it, but it's the super-rich that REALLY get the advantage, and everybody's taxes would be more evenly distributed. We would hope.
-Chris S.

Jon said...

I don't mean to turn this into a debate between us, Melissa, and I apologize if prohibiting seems like putting words in your mouth. I didn't mean to do that, but I thought I was being accurate to summarizing Reich as saying that his idea is to prohibit giving directly to a school or classroom unless a percentage of the gift goes to other schools.

Would you mind answering the question about volunteer hours? I don't see how you can stop at PTA donations when volunteer hours are also so grossly unequal and perhaps even more important. Do you not agree that volunteer hours are a bigger problem? And what is the solution there?

I do understand that equity is not equality. But then we need to decide exactly what we mean by equity and when we will be satisfied that educational opportunities are equitable for Seattle's children.

Personally, I think educational opportunities for Seattle's children will only be equitable when children in public schools are funded at the same level as children in private schools. We are a long way from that now. Much more funding (and much higher taxes) would be needed to get there.

QAE Parent said...

We chose our school, QAE, in part because of the huge amount of fundraising that community is able to do compared to our neighborhood school. Neighborhood school is close to 50% FRL (but not eligible for Title I funds, they're just below the cut-off), and is lucky to raise $200 a kid. QAE raises closer to $1000. You can buy a lot of instructional assistants and PE/Art teacher with that kind of money. Or library books, or a nurse, or counselors, or soccer balls. It just made sense to us to go to a well-resourced school where our kid would have access to things he wouldn't at our neighborhood school. (And it turned out the staff are AMAZING, so we're even happier with our choice.)

To me, the big issue isn't the disparity in dollars. It's the disparity in what those dollars buy. I would love to see an audit of what kind of access to programs and services there are at different schools. My guess is, the wealthy schools have more instructional assistants, more PE time for elementary students, larger library collections, more art instruction, more music instruction, etc. I think that'd be the logical first step in figuring out the right solution to inequalities--which may mean re-thinking how we handle PTA fundraising, or it may not.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Jon no, I don't think the volunteer hours are as important as the fundraising. We differ there. But the volunteers, their work and their presence in schools cannot be underestimated for sure.

You want public schools to be funded at the level of private schools? Which ones - Catholic or Lakeside? No, I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.

QAE, I will gently say you are fortunate to HAVE a choice. Many people don't.