School Fundraisers and Inequality


I’m a card-carrying member of three parent school associations. I write the weekly newsletter for the special-education parents’ group and help organize social events for disabled kids. But my involvement is minimal compared to the extraordinary efforts by others who raise money for schools in our town. With fundraising skills honed by former careers in business and law, these parents tap into the deep pockets of residents to collect large sums of money, which purchase items as small as a doormat in front of the school for muddy boots to costly gifts, like Chromebooks for every child. These groups also assist those in the community who are less affluent, providing college scholarships and helping create social connections for marginalized families with special-needs children.

But is all this work from parent-school groups—work that is done with the best of intentions—unfairly increasing advantages in already privileged communities? Are my volunteer activities magnifying the differences between rich and poor school districts? Education policy experts disagree about the impact of these groups in schools.

More here.

16 thoughts on “School Fundraisers and Inequality

  1. So I loved this but the ending seemed weak – perhaps because there aren’t examples out there? Did you find any communities that have found a way around the disparity? Living in DC (in the best public school district) I think about it often and would love to hear any concrete policy solutions…


  2. Different states and districts do have different policies on outside fundraising — in Portland, OR, I believe, there’s a “tax” on fundraising that goes to a common pot that’s redistributed to other schools in the district. From what I hear, private fundraising isn’t allowed in some districts in MA. On the other hand, in some districts, like Seattle’s, funds could even be used to pay teachers.

    But, I think there are ways to use foundations to get around these restrictions — say, a foundation that does fundraising that is separate from the school and then funds things like band trips (potentially directly funding the student, by offering them a scholarship).

    Another inequity producer in fundraising is matching funds from corporations that match employee donations. Microsoft, for example, matches something like 10K of employee contributions. So, if an employee is wealthy enough to be able to spare that kind of money, they can double their contribution to the school, and if there are 10 such employees at a school, that’s 200K in donations (and, tax deductible, and for much less than the cost of private school). Such fundraising can, if allowed, play an even bigger role in charter school funding. At some point, the money, at least in individual schools can be big enough that the percent of funding is substantial.


  3. But anything you do for your children increases inequality. Having books in the house advantages them over the children whose parents don’t. Should there be a special tax on books?


    1. This article just summed up two points of view by others. I didn’t really put forward an original argument, except for one quick sentence at the end about school partnerships. (Limited time, word count, stipend.)

      Yes, rich parents will provide their kids with everything from books to sports to educational vacations – things that are beyond the reach of poor parents. But don’t you think, it’s good to understand these advantages that we have? And share when we can?


      1. Yes, I think that’s good. But the single biggest advantage your and my children have is two-parent families, and I don’t have any great ideas on how to share that. (Although I would start by eliminating the marriage penalty and dramatically increasing personal exemptions for children.)


    2. y81 said:

      “But anything you do for your children increases inequality. Having books in the house advantages them over the children whose parents don’t. Should there be a special tax on books?”


      It seems more than a little perverse to penalize or fret over giving to schools, when the money could easily just be spent on improving individual family quality of life. While school giving by parents is not perfectly altruistic, it’s more altruistic than spending the same money just on family members.

      Also, there’s a wonderful P.J. O’Rourke quote about fairness.

      “Yes, it’s upsetting that some people have so much while other people have so little. It isn’t fair. But I accept this unfairness. Indeed, I treasure it. That’s because I have a 13-year-old daughter And that’s all I hear, “That’s not fair,” she says. “That’s not fair! That’s not fair!” And one day I snapped, and I said, “Honey, you’re cute, that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off, that’s not fair. You were born in America, that’s not fair. Darling, you had better get down on your knees and pray that things don’t start getting fair for you.”


    3. Books Schmooks! They do no harm to equality, unless they are read! What we need is a big punitive fee on parents who sit their toddlers on laps and read to them. Maybe fifteen dollars an hour, or twenty. That’ll fix the inequality problem! We are going into Harrison Bergeron territory here.


  4. But what we have is a tax break — not a tax. And, we do have a tax on books, at least in WA (not in Oregon). The problem with significant school fundraising is when it becomes significant enough in a district that it changes the quality of the education available to others.

    There’s a trend sometimes report in other countries that I recently heard repeated in New Jersey — paying public school teachers for private tuition. This is wrong and creates all kinds of perverse incentives.


    1. Well, we have tax breaks for giving to Yale and Harvard. It seems perverse to complain about tax breaks for giving to the local public school, which even in Laura’s town probably serves a population with lower income–and unquestionably serves a population with lower expected future income–than do the institutions of the Ivy League.


  5. Reich would have a problem with people giving major amounts of money to Yale to get their kid in the door and then getting a plaque on a building and a tax write-off.

    I thought it was interesting that the critiques of Reich’s argument made two points simultaneously. 1. Money doesn’t matter. 2. But I should be able to throw as much money as I want to MY kid’s education. If money doesn’t make a difference, then parents groups shouldn’t donate millions to their schools, because those donations would be irrational.

    Limited amount space to write at the Atlantic, but I’ll give a bit more here. Then I have to go work on an article on the debacle of Chicago schools.

    Alright, the argument that Reich and others make is that public goods should be dispensed equally. Rich people shouldn’t have their garbage collected by gold plated garbage trucks or ride on special lanes on the highway. Everybody should get the same. When parents are supplementing their public schools excessively, then you have one public school with libraries with atriums and another public school library with three books. That’s not fair.


    1. Well why should the public goods be dispensed geographically? If you allow school choice within a district or state, does that alleviate the problem?


      1. Districts here are absurdly small and many of them use zoning to make it impossible for somebody poor to live there. The result is that some of the districts have such concentrated poverty that I don’t understand how they are allowed to still exist or at least to exist without a meaningful state constitution.


    2. Reich should take the plank out of his own eye–he teaches at Stanford–before he worries about the motes in the eyes of public school parents. Everybody knows that you can buy your way into college, and the payment will be deductible. And the money you give to Yale or Stanford, whether it buys your child’s admission or not, most definitely stays within the community of the meritocratic elite, and does very little for the poor.


  6. I did not feel that the funds raised for the school by the parents’ foundation improved the education.

    It was largely handed over to Apple and other tech companies for technical equipment. (Whiteboards, anyone?) The foundation took a leading role in funding “pilot” programs. The theory was that the district would take over successful programs.

    Of course, the voters noticed that “level services budgets” were being presented to them which included spending for these programs. Their opposition to overrides for extra stuff led the school to institute fees for sports, extracurricular activities, riding the bus, etc.

    There’s a replacement cycle for tech toys, which means these fees will only increase with time. On balance, I feel the students receive a worse education, because so many students are edged out of valuable activities.


  7. Theoretically, I’m opposed to private fundraising for schools, for just the reasons you offer. But as time has gone on, I’ve had to come around. I’ve worked on many overrides to support our schools in my community – and generally speaking, those have mostly been rejected. So I tried, I really did. but since voters won’t support our schools (and we’re in the bottom 10% of our state with respect to per pupil funding), it’s hard to just sit around and do nothing. So, I keep pushing for overrides (now from my platform on the School Committee), but I also sit on the board of our local foundation and run an event that raises tend of thousands of dollars to support our schools. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t work this way, but I feel like my kids and the kids who attend these schools shouldn’t have to wait out the pig-headedness of (mainly) the older people in our community. Sounds like you’re pretty much in the same place.


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