Local Fund-Raising Prompts Larger Questions About Equity

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The idea had such an appealing, '90s ring to it: Rather than wait for their school board to pay for a new high school auditorium, residents of Bowie, Md., would rally together and raise the money themselves.

After all, the proposed auditorium had languished on the list of capital projects in the Prince George's County school system since 1976. With budgets tight and new classrooms the school board's highest building priority, Bowie High School's boosters could see that their cherished project was going nowhere.

So they decided to step in where government was unlikely to deliver.

But when some board members got wind of the civic group's plans last month, they cried foul. Allowing a private group to pay for an expensive project at one school would widen the gap between poor and affluent schools throughout the district, the board members said.

The debate in Bowie highlights a quandary facing a growing number of parents and educators nationwide: When does financial support from parents and communities cross the line to create unacceptable inequities in schools?

The question, although not a new one, has become more pressing.

Maintaining Balance

Local school budgets are besieged on several fronts: proposed federal budget cuts, school-finance litigation, statewide tax cuts, and voter resistance to local tax increases. At the same time, parents are being urged by politicians and policymakers to become more involved in education than ever before.

Supporters say allowing parents and communities to raise money for school improvements can keep middle- and upper-middle-class children in the public system.

The problem, critics argue, is that schools with well-off, knowledgeable parents can raise far more money than those in low-income neighborhoods where families struggle just to make ends meet.

In Bowie, the controversy centers around a project that would benefit one school. But similar questions have been raised about the growth of private, tax-exempt foundations created to raise money for entire school districts.

Born in California in the late 1970s after the passage of the Proposition 13 tax-limitation law, these foundations have now spread to more than 2,500 districts nationwide, said Dan McCormick, a Michigan consultant who helps districts set up such foundations. Many work hand in hand with booster or alumni groups at individual high schools.

In a district with 2,000 students and a $10 million budget, typically only about $300,000 is discretionary, Mr. McCormick pointed out. In a district that size, a foundation can raise between $80,000 and $120,000 a year--enough to boost spending significantly on technology, library materials, arts programs, or teacher mini-grants.

But not enough money, Mr. McCormick contended, to create serious inequities.

"You can have things you wouldn't have without a foundation--all the way from playground equipment to high-tech equipment--but will it destroy a balance of the basic delivery of education?" he said. "I've never seen it occur."

'Strings Attached'

Even without dramatic effects, however, some critics worry that private foundations can siphon away the collective taxpayer support needed to ensure strong public school systems.

"You put on the backs of the philanthropic sector what is a public responsibility," argued Beth Dilley, the executive director of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Education Fund.

And if private foundations begin to underwrite core educational programs, equity advocates say, they could become issues in statewide school-finance litigation.

Paul L. Trachtenberg, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., said states may have an obligation to match money raised in wealthy districts with expenditures in poorer areas that lack such support.

Mr. Trachtenberg is the founder of the Education Law Center, a public-interest firm that represented the plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit that challenged New Jersey's school-finance system.

One foundation in that state, while raising less than $30,000, has paid for science equipment, such as microscopes, and computers, he noted. "That sounds to me like fairly mainstream educational equipment."

In addition to California and New Jersey, the foundations have spread to such states as Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Texas--all of which have wrestled with ways to distribute money for schools more equitably.

And in Florida, where soaring enrollment has outstripped the state's ability to pay for schools, 53 of 67 counties have foundations that seek partnerships with businesses.

School districts should not create these foundations, experts caution, without a clear idea of what the money will be used for. They must also account publicly for how the money is spent, and set guidelines for fund-raising activities and the role donors will play in spending decisions.

"Money comes with strings attached," said Thomas Jeavons, the director of the Center on Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. "There are all sorts of very serious issues of accountability, credibility, and organizational issues about who calls the shots that emerge when you do this."

A Clear Message

In Bowie, residents recently formed a tax-exempt organization called the Bowie Regional Art Vision Association, or brava, to raise money for the proposed $5 million auditorium. Part of the debate there stems from brava's intention to seek money from the city, the state of Maryland, and the regional parks commission for the project.

Kenneth E. Johnson, a member of the school board, argued that the parks and planning commission should give money to the entire 112,000-student system, not just to one community.

If the school board allowed these types of fund-raising projects, he said, "in some areas, we would have class sizes down to 10 students per class, and there would not be a reason for them to support initiatives to provide revenue for the county at large."

But Verna Teasdale, a board member who supports brava, said the auditorium would benefit students at surrounding schools and likely would never be built without a private effort.

"We have to be very, very clear," Ms. Teasdale said. "We either want the community and businesses to come together to work in the best interest of kids, or we don't."

Eleanor Minor, a vocal-music teacher at Bowie High School who stages her drama productions in the cafeteria for lack of better space, is bewildered by the controversy. "We just thought this was something everyone would jump on the bandwagon for," she said, yet "here we have people thinking we have gone overboard or stepped out of our place."

Bake Sales Obsolete

The surest way to drive motivated, consumer-oriented parents out of public schools, proponents of privately financed projects warn, is to put limits on ways they can help their children's schools.

"If parents say, 'If I can't get this kind of program, then I'm leaving,' then everybody loses," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, the executive director of Parents United, an advocacy organization in Washington.

The National PTA, however, frowns on fund raising that can lead to inequalities.

"We do get very concerned when there's a lot of fund raising going on and people are buying equipment and supplies and things that another school in the same district is struggling to obtain," said Pat Dingsdale, the chairwoman of the PTA's education commission. "At the same time, we're realistic enough to realize that parents see a need, and they want to fulfill that need."

Ms. Rice-Thurston believes the ideal situation would be for well-off parents to teach their counterparts in other schools how to raise money.

In Washington--where some schools in affluent neighborhoods have raised tens of thousands of dollars--parents have done just that. The nonprofit Washington Parent Group Fund provides training and seed money to help disadvantaged schools learn to raise money.

Some local PTAs also work to relieve inequities. In Los Angeles, for example, the 10th District Parent-Teacher-Student Association requires its chapters to give 15 percent of the money they raise to a health clinic that offers dental and vision care for children. Chapters must contribute another 10 percent to provide clothing, shoes, and other necessities for children in the community.

Mary Toma, the president of the group, said each of the approximately 200 PTA chapters in the 10th district raises anywhere from $500 to $25,000 each year. The 75 percent they keep must be spent on programs or equipment that would benefit every child in the school.

Some districts have strict guidelines for how supplemental money can be used. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, such funds cannot be used to hire extra personnel during the regular school day. And any materials and equipment that are purchased for schools become district property.

In Cincinnati, where the district cut $31.4 million this year because voters rejected tax hikes proposed to keep up with inflation, large-scale fund raising is providing what were once considered educational essentials.

District officials hope to pass a tax levy next month. Meanwhile, parents and community members are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore programs, keep libraries open, and preserve extracurricular activities.

"The days of bake sales to raise a couple hundred dollars for school activities are obsolete," said Monica Curtis, a district spokeswoman.

Avenue for Extras

In 1991, parents in Winchester, Mass., who were frustrated with their state's strict limits on local property-tax increases set up the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence.

"No matter how wealthy a school district is, there are always extras you like to do, if you have an avenue to do that," said Judy King, a Winchester parent and a member of the foundation's board of directors.

The foundation raises enough to distribute $40,000 in mini-grants to the 3,100-student district's teachers each year. It will not pay for teachers' transportation or for stipends, but will pick up the tab for consultants and extra materials for teachers.

Foundation money also has purchased an inflatable planetarium, an artist-in-residence, and a graphic-arts center at the high school.

"The biggest impact has been the spirit of support that teachers feel from the community," Ms. King said.

In California, a local foundation has brought the 29,000-student Clovis district teacher mini-grant programs, alcohol-free graduation parties for the three high schools, a volunteer program, and partnerships with local businesses.

The Foundation for Clovis Schools, which brings in $165,000 a year, also manages specific scholarships and endowments, including a recent $35,000 donation for a high school technology lab.

"I think a lot of opportunities will be missed by school districts if they don't have a foundation," said Nick Grimes, the executive director.

"We don't want to do the district's job," he added. "We want to find places where we can be of specific help, and help to the community that wants to do it."

Vol. 15, Issue 06

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